Researchers analyzed a dataset that began with Henry David Thoreau's cataloging of plants around Walden Pond in the 1850s, when the famed naturalist kept meticulous notes documenting natural history, plant species occurrences, and flowering times. Since then, the mean annual temperature around Concord, Mass., has increased by 2.4 degrees Celsius, or 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit, causing some plants to shift their flowering time by as much as three weeks in response to ever-earlier spring thaws.
"We set out to use this dataset to examine which plants have been the beneficiaries of climate change," says author Charles C. Davis, assistant professor in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. "Our research suggests quite decisively that non-native and invasive species have been the climate change winners. Climate change will lead to an as-yet unknown shuffling of species, and it appears that invasive species will become more dominant."
Purple loosestrife, an invasive plant species common in the northeastern United States, is seen near Concord, Mass.
(Photo Credit: Abraham Miller-Rushing)
Davis and colleagues compared a plethora of plant traits -- everything from height at maturity to flower diameter to seed weight -- against species' response to more than a century and a half of climate change. Alone among all these traits, plants that have fared well share a common phenology, a suite of traits related to the timing of seasonal events such as flowering, leaf growth, germination, and migration.
By contrast, many plants with a less flexible flowering schedule -- and thus prone to flowering at suboptimal times -- have declined in population, in many cases to the point of local extinction.
The current work builds upon a 2008 paper which showed that some of the plant families hit hardest by climate change at Walden Pond include beloved species like lilies, orchids, violets, roses, and dogwoods. The scientists also reported that some 27 percent of all species Thoreau recorded from 1851 to 1858 are now locally extinct, and another 36 percent are so sparse that extinction may be imminent.
"Invasive species can be intensely destructive to biodiversity, ecosystem function, agriculture, and human health," Davis says. "In the United States alone the estimated annual cost of invasive species exceeds $120 billion. Our results could help in developing predictive models to assess the threat of future invasive species, which may become greatly exacerbated in the face of continued climate change."
Citation: Willis CG, Ruhfel BR, Primack RB, Miller-Rushing AJ, Losos JB, et al., 'Favorable Climate Change Response Explains Non-Native Species' Success in Thoreau's Woods', PLoS ONE, January 2010, 5(1): e8878. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008878