A new study proposes evolution as the driving force behind plant migration. The study also suggests scientists could be underestimating how fast species could move.
The study published in the journal ‘Science’ reveals some animals and plants are moving farther north to cooler temperatures due to climate change.
“We know from previous research that evolution might play a role in how fast a species can move across a region or continent,” said Jennifer Williams, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in UBC’s department of geography. “But what our study suggests is that evolution is not only a factor in movement, but that it can, in fact, accelerate the spread, and can do so predictably.”
For the study the scientists used a small flowering plant (Arabidopsis thailana) to test the role of evolution in plant migration. Two sets of population were cultivated, evolution was active in one set and hindered in the other.
The study showed, after six generations, evolving plant populations migrated 11 percent farther than the other non-evolving populations in favourable conditions. However, in the more challenging environment seeds dispersed 200 percent farther in the set with the evolving plants.
Williams suggested, the findings show evolution accelerates the speed of migration.
Nonetheless, more research is required to find the reason for the increased speed of migration in challenging conditions.
“We know, for example, that there are some species of butterflies and plants that are expanding their ranges with climate change and moving north or up in elevation,” she said. “What our results suggest is that, with evolution, the species can move faster and faster because the traits that make them better at moving are becoming more common at the front of the invasion. In the case of our plants, in the evolving populations, their seeds can disperse a bit further.”
In addition, she said the findings emphasize the importance for scientists to acknowledge evolutionary change when predicting how quickly native species will move as the Earth’s temperature rises.