Clues to Climate Change Found In Antique Pressed Plants

pressed flower in book photo

Photo via SurFeRGiRL30 via Flickr Creative Commons

Natural history museums and herbaria are piled high with samples of flora and fauna dating as far back as 250 years. Now the scientific fervor over collecting samples of the natural world is helping climate scientists learn how warming trends are altering the timing of plants' lives. A team of ecologists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University of Kent, the University of Sussex and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew took a look at 77 specimens of the early spider orchid collected between 1848 and 1958 and by matching information about when and where it was picked with Meteorological Office records, they've been able to determine how average springtime temperatures have affected the orchids' flowering over the last 150 years, and have shown that these collections can be a boon for climate science.Through their comparisons of the specimens alongside field data collected more recently, the scientists found that peak flowering times for the orchid species changed over time -- for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature for average spring temperatures, the orchid flowered six days earlier, according to lifesciencesworld.

While we already knew that warmer temperatures means earlier flowering, the research has shown that pressed plants can be an invaluable resource in finding accurate measurements for changes over time, and therefore help with creating more accurage modeling for future scenarios.

According to the study's lead author, PhD student Karen Robbirt of UEA: "The results of our study are exciting because the flowering response to spring temperature was so strikingly close in the two independent sources of data. This suggests that pressed plant collections may provide valuable additional information for climate-change studies.

"We found that the flowering response to spring temperature has remained constant, despite the accelerated increase in temperatures since the 1970s. This gives us some confidence in our ability to predict the effects of further warming on flowering times."

Considering the collections of flora and fauna specimens available at natural history museums worldwide, this is excellent news for climate change science. It opens up a whole treasure trove of untapped information on changes over the last two centuries that can dramatically impact our understanding of what to expect of wildlife (and how to react to changes) as the planet warms.

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