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Plants have something to say about climate. A new study unlocks their ‘language’

The sun peeks through the thick canopy of trees.
The sun peeks through the thick canopy of trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park near Weott, Calif.
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Good morning. It’s Thursday, Sept. 28. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

  • How researchers learned to understand the language of plants
  • California’s new reproductive health laws
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  • And here’s today’s e-newspaper

Plants have something to say about climate. UCLA researchers learned their language

California is between droughts right now, but scientists say climate change will fuel more severe dry spells in the Golden State in the coming decades.

Humans can express their discomfort with heat, drought and other environmental conditions easily. But according to new research from UCLA biologists, plants are also communicating their ideal conditions in their leaves and wood. Biologists say that could help us better protect native species as we adapt to a changing climate.

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The study, published this month in the journal Functional Ecology, outlines researchers’ work collecting samples from more than 100 tree and shrub species in six different California ecosystems. They examined 10 physiological plant traits, including height; leaf size and wilting point; the nutrients and other chemical compositions in their leaves; and the density of their wood.

Scientists then created a statistical model to predict the climate conditions each plant species preferred, including average temperature, rainfall and aridity. The study also identified species with a “trait-climate mismatch” — those currently growing in a region that is not ideal for them.

Scientists have long known that plant species spent millions of years adapting to the environments they grow in. But this study did something new, said senior author Lawren Sack, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

“While people have shown the [plants’] traits relate to climate, nobody has then turned it around and used them to predict the climate the plants prefer,” he told me.

Sack noted that the study focuses on the average climate that plants prefer and not simply the thresholds those plants can tolerate — such as the highest temperature or least rain.

Lead author and UCLA postdoctoral scholar Camila Medeiros said the predictions can be used to determine which species are most at risk, which could inform conservation efforts.

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“As climate change ensues, we think this will tend to aggravate the sensitivity of many species, including common trees like the California buckeye and shrubs like the purple sage and California lilacs,” Medeiros said in a news release.

Researchers didn’t expect as much diversity among plants as they ended up finding by examining their traits, Sack said. That could have some major implications for our forest ecosystems in the future, he explained:

“As droughts get worse, you’re going to get a really strong change of the species in terms of their dominance within the ecosystems… where previously common species become less common, previously less common become more common.”

Sack said he hopes the research will help Californians see climate change as an all-species struggle now that plants’ unique “language” has been unlocked.

“This is a way for plants to tell us what climate they want to occupy,” he said. “We should try to keep [our] climate stable for all of the organisms, for all of the ecosystem and not just think about ourselves.”

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