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Plants Climb Their Way to Extinction

6 August 2007
Alpines are forced to climb but soon there will be nowhere left go  

 Alpine plants are having to climb higher but soon
there will be nowhere left to retreat to
Image © Josef Stuefer

New evidence has just emerged providing proof that climate change in the Italian Alps is forcing plants to move to higher altitudes, cooler temperatures and probable extinction.

A recent study by European Native Seed Conservation Network (ENSCONET) members at the University of Pavia, Italy, has repeated a 50 year old plant survey and observed that many have moved 430m higher than their previously recorded limits in response to a 1.5°C rise in temperature.

Through the effects of climate change Europe is on the verge of losing some its most remarkable plants. An estimated one in four plant species on our continent is endangered, with 800 currently threatened by extinction. As temperatures rise plants have to cope with the changed habitat conditions or, if that is not possible, gradually migrate over several generations to areas where they are better able to survive. Regions that will be particularly affected are high mountain areas, with plants such as the spectacular blue gentian (Gentiana bavarica), wonderful yellow flowered coltsfoot (Tussilargo farfara) and the star-like Alpine hawkweed (Hieracium intybaceum) being lost for future generations.

Dr. Gilberto Parolo & Professor Graziano Rossi who conducted the survey said: “It was a surprise to discover that 52 of our surveyed plant species had moved up the mountain compared to their location half a century ago, whereas no plants were discovered at a lower altitudes. Furthermore, some species had already reached the top of the mountain and this means the only place for them, as our climate warms, is extinction”.

Dr. Rossi continued: “Fortunately, seeds of these species have been harvested and are safely stored in Pavia’s seed bank and at Kew’s.”

This study has highlighted the vulnerability of high mountain plants. ENSCONET, coordinated from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, is working to safeguard their future by harvesting and conserving seeds of plants threatened with extinction and storing them until they can be re-released. 

Dr. Jonas Müller, ENSCONET coordinator said: “For many plants that have their habitats threatened by climate change, seed banking is the only alternative, without these measures they will become extinct. The idea behind long-term seed storage is simply to insure that species survive and can be returned to nature for future generations to enjoy”.

Dr. Müller continued: “ENSCONET enables vital knowledge of threatened plants, harvesting seed and subsequent storage to be pooled from across Europe. Kew, Pavia and 25 other institutes from a 17 countries in Europe have joined forces to protect the continent's most endangered species many of which face extinction”.

Professor Rossi emphasized that “Conservation networks such as ENSCONET are vitally important to protect our endangered plants and it is clearly evident that more funds should be directed towards plant conservation before it is too late”.

Unless climate change is curbed, the next generation will see a very different flora to the one that we all enjoy today. Botanists are working to safeguard many of Europe’s endangered species but lack of funds is constraining progress.

Sara Oldfield Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International added: “The need for plant conservation has never been greater, it is imperative that we take action now. The early signs that high mountain plants are migrating to cooler areas should serve as a wake-up call to us all”. 

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