September 22, 2010

150 Year Old Plants Could Aid Climate Change Research

Vital information about climate change could be contained in plants that were picked more than a century ago by Victorian-era collectors and are currently housed in herbariums worldwide, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of Ecology.

In the study, researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University of Kent, the University of Sussex and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew looked at 77 specimens of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes), which had been collected between 1848 and 1958 and were being housed at the botanical gardens and London's Natural History Museum.

They then compared the data collected from those samples with field observations obtained from spider orchids at the Castle Hill National Nature Reserve in East Sussex between 1975 and 2006. What they discovered, according to a Tuesday press release, was that "the response of flowering time to temperature was identical both in herbarium specimens and field data."

In both cases, the orchids flowered six days earlier for every one-degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in the average spring temperature.

"The results of our study are exciting because the flowering response to spring temperature was so strikingly close in the two independent sources of data," Karen Robbirt, a UEA doctorate student and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. "This suggests that pressed plant collections may provide valuable additional information for climate-change studies."

"We found that the flowering response to spring temperature has remained constant, despite the accelerated increase in temperatures since the 1970s. This gives us some confidence in our ability to predict the effects of further warming on flowering times," she added.

According to the press release, the findings confirm that researchers can now use the more than 2.5 billion different plant and animal specimens located in museums and other facilities around the world in order to study the impact of climate change on various lifeforms.

"There is an enormous wealth of untapped information locked within our museums and herbaria that can contribute to our ability to predict the effects of future climate change on many plant species," said study co-author and UEA professor Anthony Davy. "Importantly it may well be possible to extend similar principles to museum collections of insects and animals."

"Understanding the effects of recent climate change is a vital step towards predicting the consequences of future change," he added. "But only by elucidating the responses of individual species will we be able to predict the potentially disruptive effects of accelerating climate change on species interactions."


Image 1: This is an herbarium sheet of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) at Kew (a record from Kent for May 1, 1900). Credit: K. Robbirt

Image 2: This is an early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes).


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