Brain Food: Helping Key Plant Species Survive Climate Change

Oct 8, 2015

The American Southwest is one of the fastest changing climates in North America. And some scientists fear many plants, and the organisms that depend on them, may not be able to adapt to the changes in time to survive. That’s why Northern Arizona University ecological geneticist Tom Whitham is cloning key species and planting them in different environments.

Researchers from the Southwest Experimental Garden Array clone various species and plant them in different environments to examine their adaptability to changes in climate.
Credit NAU

“We really need to focus on the ones that are the biggest players in the ecosystem. They're kind of like the General Motors of the plant world. They’re too big to let fail so we have to invest heavily into them to make sure that they do not fail because of the consequences were they to fail.”

Whitham’s research plots are part of the Southwest Experimental Garden Array. They range from five to 50 acres and are located in the forests and deserts of northern Arizona. He’s looking for the superior individuals within foundational species, trying to determine how big of an environmental leap they can take, and if all the spiders, grasses and bacteria that depend on them can make the jump, too.

“Instead of just randomly planting all these genotypes of which many may be doomed to die simply because they just don’t have the physiological tolerance to live in a more stressful environment, we can be far more efficient in our restoration efforts by identifying those individual species that can handle a hotter or drier environment.”

Whitham says habitat destruction is the number one cause of species extinction. Invasive species are number two and climate change is the elephant in the room that many think is going to push us into a period of massive extinction. His research focuses on which Southwestern species may have a fighting chance.