The ability of a plant and its pollinator to survive rapid climate change depends upon the density and distribution of other species in the community, a new study has suggested.
Ecologists have known for many years that climate change alters the timing of when plants flower and when insects emerge. If climate change causes species that rely on one another, known as “mutualists”, to be active at different times, then these species may be threatened with extinction.
The question that remained was whether the process of evolution could mitigate the potential damage that climate change can inflict upon the timing of life cycle events.
To find an answer to this, researchers from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis used computer simulations to examine the effect of climate change on populations of flowering plants and their insect pollinators for the study.
They found that in some cases evolution can rescue plant-pollinator mutualisms that would otherwise become extinct as a result of climate change.
They also found weather a mutualism survives can depend upon the density and distribution of other species in the community.
“In such cases, habitat fragmentation or loss of native pollinators might compound the threat of climate change to mutualisms,” Tucker Gilman, lead author of the paper, said.
“The results are troubling because anthropogenic (or human caused) climate change is thought to be happening up to ten times faster than any natural climate change in the past 500,000 years,” Gilman said.
“This means that mutualisms that have survived past climate change events may still be vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change,” he added.
The study has been published in the online edition of Evolutionary Applications.