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Climate change linked to narrowing leaves

Climate change is causing the leaves of at least one subspecies of Australian plant to narrow in size, a team from the University…

Herbarium specimens of leaves from the Narrow-leaf hopbush are 40% wider than contemporary specimens. Greg Guerin, Haixia Wen, Andrew Lowe
Climate change is causing the leaves of at least one subspecies of Australian plant to narrow in size, a team from the University of Adelaide has found.

Their study shows that the leaves of the Narrow-leaf hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa subspecies angustissima) have narrowed by 2mm since the 1880s - equivalent to a 40% decrease.

The results are published today in the journal Biology Letters.

The study focused on specimens from South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Between 1950 and 2005, there has been a 1.2-degree increase in maximum temperatures in South Australia but little change in rainfall in the Flinders Ranges, the authors said.

“Climate change is often discussed in terms of future impacts, but changes in temperature over recent decades have already been ecologically significant,” said Greg Guerin, a Postdoctoral Fellow with the University of Adelaide’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and lead author of the study.

“Climate change is driving adaptive shifts within plant species and leaf shape has demonstrated adaptive significance in relation to climate,” Dr Guerin said.

“Our results indicate that leaf width is closely linked to maximum temperatures, and plants from warmer latitudes typically have narrower leaves.

Dr Guerin said some Australian plant species are better able to cope with rising temperatures.

“Other species in the region have less potential to adapt. These species may rely more heavily on migration – moving from location to location where the climate is favourable – but this can be problematic in a landscape fragmented by human activity.”

William Stock, a Professor of Environmental Management at the School of Natural Sciences at Edith Cowan University, said the study was “very interesting - we know that leaves vary with climate, but what’s novel in this research is that they measured historical herbarium specimens and compared them against modern day patterns.

“That shows the link with climate change very well,” said Professor Stock, who was not involved in the research.

“What we don’t know, and what the authors acknowledge here, is whether this is a genetic adaptation - in other words it’s part of a genotype of the organism, or whether it’s just a phenotypic expression, which is just an expression of current climate, which means that the species could be very plastic in the way it responds to climate and is not actually adapting to climate change.

“We don’t know whether this is an inherited character, or whether the plant has flexibility to respond to the current range of climate.”

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. John Coochey


    Let us hope this is not like the paper published in Nature (a very prestigious journal) which showed controlled experiments showed homeopathic medicine actually worked. Nature published it provided someone could repeat the experiment. One of the testers was James Randi, who is an illusionist who debunked Uri Geller. When the experiment was repeated but properly blinded it failed. But anyway sounds good news, plants are adapting.

  2. Derek Bolton

    Retired s/w engineer

    Is the natural range of the species sufficient that it would be possible to observe the leaf width / temperature dependence at a single time?

    1. John Coochey


      In reply to Derek Bolton

      That was actually my point but you put it more succinctly

    2. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Derek Bolton

      To quote from the article: "... plants from warmer latitudes typically have narrower leaves ...". Presumably, two specimens from different latitudes would exhibit variation.

    3. Derek Bolton

      Retired s/w engineer

      In reply to David Boxall

      That quote reads like a statement about differences between species. The article concerns variation within a species. If that species occurs across a range with a temperature variation comparable to the 1.2 degree increase mentioned, we should expect to see at least a comparable variation in leaf width to that observed to have happened over time in the one location.