U scientists publish global warming, prairie plant research

Joanna Dornfeld

If annual temperatures around the globe continue to rise, one native Minnesota plant might not be able to adapt to the climate changes.

University researchers concluded the evolution of the partridge pea plant will not match the pace of global warming, according to research published Friday in the journal Science. It is the first research of its kind.

In order to be preserved the species and other prairie plants might need to be transplanted in the future, said Julie Etterson, primary researcher and article co-author.

The prairie plants are native from Minnesota to Texas. Seeds from Minnesota, Kansas and Oklahoma were planted in each of the three states. Researchers selected the partridge pea plant because it is an annual plant and data could be collected in a single year.

The scientists used an environmental model that predicts Minnesota’s climate will be similar to Kansas’ current climate – 4 degrees Celsius higher – in 25 to 35 years.

“In my mind, the testing of the Minnesota plants is the intermediate prediction, and testing them in Oklahoma is the extreme prediction for what climate might be in Minnesota,” Etterson said.

The climate model used in the experiment is on the extreme end of what many scientists predict, said Richard Skaggs, geography
professor and interim dean.

“The method they used is certainly a valid one,” he said. “(The climate projection) is on the high side of what has been estimated.”

The one drawback of the experiment is global warming involves incremental temperature changes rather than the abrupt changes used in the experiment, Etterson said.

More research should be done about the effects of global warming on plant evolution to address the issue, she said.

The plant is not a representation of all native prairie plants. Most prairie plants are perennial grasses.

The specific research conclusions on the partridge pea plant can’t be specifically applied to other organisms, but it seems likely they could apply in general, said Ruth Shaw, an ecology, evolution and behavior professor and the article’s co-author.

“It seems likely that similar limitations would be found for others, though it remains to study them,” Shaw said.

The experiment’s results are not definitive, she said. If the government begins to regulate the factors causing global warming, the partridge pea plant could adapt.

Etterson conducted the research in 1998 while a University graduate student under Shaw’s supervision. Etterson is currently a post doctoral research associate at the University of Virginia.

“As a first attempt to address this, it is a good representation,” Etterson said. “More work of its kind should be done on other types of species.”