Evolutionary resistance: Does adaptation stabilise plant community structure and function under climate change?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Institute of Integrative Biology

Abstract

Globally, we depend on grasslands to support biodiversity and agricultural productivity, offer recreational areas, and provide a wide range of other valuable ecosystem services. For example, the UK dairy industry, which is worth ~£4.27 billion per year, depends entirely on grasslands. At the same time, grasslands are among the most altered and least protected ecosystems, and they are now being to the imminent effects of climate change: warming, drought, flooding.

Grassland organisms may ultimately cope with climate change by adapting, via evolution, where environmental change selects for individuals of a species that have advantageous characteristics (specific 'phenotypes'). This adaptive response stems from both changes in phenotype, and changes in the way organisms express their characteristics in a new environment (called 'phenotypic plasticity). Both aspects increase the likelihood that organisms will thrive in the new environment. Both of these components of evolution can buffer populations against the adverse effects of climate change. However, we do not know how evolutionary change will alter communities of coexisting species or the important ecosystem processes that underpin the important benefits of grasslands to our society.

This study focuses on species-rich grasslands, which have a high conservation value, and are an iconic feature of UK landscapes. They can contain more than 40 plant species per square metre and any of these coexisting species may evolve when exposed to climate change. Nobody knows how these adaptive changes in component species could influence grassland plant communities and the ecosystem as a whole, and whether they will allow grasslands to remain relatively unchanged ("resistant") during climate change. This is because, to date, most scientists have studied climate-driven evolution in single isolated species, which does not allow us to assess how adaptation could influence interactions among co-existing species.

Our research wil address this by studying climate-driven evolutionary change in plant communities in a natural grassland. For over two decades, we have exposed a species-rich grassland near Buxton, UK, to simulated climate change (warming, increased rainfall, and drought). Our research has shown very little change in the diversity and abundance of grassland plant species subjected to different climate treatments, meaning that the plant community is resistant to change. However, we have also shown that some of the plant species are adapting to the climate treatments, raising the possibility that evolution itself is the source of resistance to climate change and could explain the stability of the plant community in this species-rich grassland.

Building on our previous work, our overarching goal is to use the Buxton climate experiment as a model to understand how evolutionary changes allow grassland plants to resist climate change at the community and ecosystem levels. In doing so, we aim to determine how species diversity contributes to the services that grasslands provide, and to better understand (and predict) threats to grasslands under climate change.

We have designed a set of experiments to examine how evolutionary adaptation to climate changes in individual plants influences the stability of plant communities and important ecosystem processes. Over three years, we will measure i) the strength and direction of evolution in 16 coexisting plant species, ii) use mathematical modelling to predict climate impacts on grasslands and iii) test for these impacts using targeted experiments at Buxton. This will involve constructing model ecosystems, and measuring species responses, plant phenotypes, and ecosystem processes in the climate treatments. Our research will provide a unique, evolutionary view of how plants, and their phenotypes, contribute to the stability of grasslands and ecosystem processes during climate change.

Planned Impact

Our proposed research will provide an integrated view of evolutionary and ecological responses to climate change. Results from this study will reveal how evolution within coexisting plant species can confer stability in grassland structure and ecosystem process rates under climate change. We will gain novel insights into i) the prevalence of evolutionary adaptation within a community of coexisting plants (including effects on plasticity), ii) the importance of evolution for the accurate prediction of species responses to climate change from plant functional traits, and iii) the importance of evolutionary changes in stabilising plant community structure and ecosystem process rates. Our study focuses on calcareous, species-rich grasslands, which support many rare plant species and a rich insect fauna.

Who might benefit from this research? We have identified three key non-academic stakeholder groups:
1. Conservation practitioners, statutory conservation agencies (including Project Partner, Natural England), and other conservation trusts and charities (e.g., the Peak Park Authority, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, the National Trust) and UK policy-makers such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
2. Horticultural businesses and others involved in the production and sale of native seed. This market (£3-6 million value in 2011) is dominated by the production and sale of grassland wildflower mixes and is expected to grow strongly, likely doubling by 2020.
3. The general public, who demonstrate a keen awareness of climate change issues and conservation of species-rich UK habitats.

How might they benefit from this research?
1: Practitioners and policy-makers will benefit through an improved understanding of how adaptive genetic variation contributes to ecosystem resilience during climate change. Our results will provide an evidence base to support policy decisions to optimise landscape management strategies and anticipae threats to grasslands and ecosystem services. Our research will also facilitate the modelling of both the current and the future capacity of grassland landscape to resist climate change by incorporating the effects of evolution. By engaging these organisations in knowledge exchange throughout the programme of research, we will ensure that our work can create impacts with real-world value.
2: Horticultural businesses that supply native seed and seed mixes for habitat restoration could benefit from our project through an improved understanding of climatic impacts on seed restoration success. Our results have the potential to provide the knowledge-base for determining optimal approaches to seed sourcing and choosing species mixtures for wildflower mixes, providing businesses with increased capacity to develop marketable stress-resistant seed mixtures.
3: The general public stand to gain educational and environmental knowledge benefits from our project, through (i) enhanced awareness of potential climatic impacts on biodiversity and the ecological supply chain that provides ecosystem services, and (ii) an improved understanding of the potential for genetic resilience within natural populations and ecosystems. Public engagement through a variety of media will provide many opportunities to promote the research, increase public interest in climate change adaptation, and enhance educational activities to promote field-based learning, ultimately creating a legacy that will outlast the project.
All of the stakeholders are likely to derive long-term benefits from our maintenance of the long-term climate treatments at Buxton. It is difficult to predict the precise nature of these future impacts, but we expect them to accrue through continuing gains in our understanding of grassland ecosystems and their value to man.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description I and staff on the project have taken part in The Ness Gardens Family Science Fair 2019, Ness Botanic Gardens.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Buxton Climate Change Impacts Lab Steering Committee 
Organisation Lancaster University
Department Lancaster Environment Centre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I currently chair the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Lab Steering Committee, which oversees the running and scientific activities at the UK's longest-running scientific experiment, Buxton Cliamte Change Impacts Lab (BCCIL)
Collaborator Contribution Dr Emma Sayer (Lancaster), and Dr Karl Evans (Sheffield) contribute to the project by providing input and advice at steering committee meetings, leading to joint management of the BCCIL site.
Impact We secured further funding from the ECT and from NERC to carry out additional scientific investigation at BCCIL and to keep the climate manipulations at Buxton running for a further four years.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Buxton Climate Change Impacts Lab Steering Committee 
Organisation University of Sheffield
Department Department of Animal and Plant Sciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I currently chair the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Lab Steering Committee, which oversees the running and scientific activities at the UK's longest-running scientific experiment, Buxton Cliamte Change Impacts Lab (BCCIL)
Collaborator Contribution Dr Emma Sayer (Lancaster), and Dr Karl Evans (Sheffield) contribute to the project by providing input and advice at steering committee meetings, leading to joint management of the BCCIL site.
Impact We secured further funding from the ECT and from NERC to carry out additional scientific investigation at BCCIL and to keep the climate manipulations at Buxton running for a further four years.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation Purdue University
Department Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA
Department Agricultural Research Service
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of California, Irvine
Department Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of California, Riverside
Department Department of Botany & Plant Sciences
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of Exeter
Department Biosciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of Maine
Department School of Biology & Ecology
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of Massachusetts
Department Department of Environmental Conservation
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of New Hampshire
Department College of Life Sciences and Agriculture
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of Picardie Jules Verne
Country France 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of Seville
Country Spain 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Invasive species and climate change 
Organisation University of Southampton
Department Department of Geography and Environment
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involves: Cascade Sorte (University of California, Irvine) Regan Early (Exeter, UK) Amanda Bates (Southampton, UK) Bethany Bradley (University of Massachusetts) Montserrat Vilà (Seville) Jeffrey Diez (University of California, Riverside) Jeffrey Dukes (Purdue) Dana Blumenthal (USDA ARS Fort Collins) Jenica Allen (University of New Hapmshire) Jonathan Lenoir (Universite de Picardie) Jacquelyn Gill (University of Maine) This large collaboration involves several projects that aim to understand how the spread of invasive species may be enhanced or limited by climate change, and what the impacts of this will be on native ecosystems. My current contribution to one of the projects is in carrying out mixed model meta-analyses (statistical support).
Collaborator Contribution My partners within the meta-analysis project component of this collaboration have done literature searches and data extraction to prepare data for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Prof Honor C Prentice, Lund University, Sweden 
Organisation Lund University
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Drafting and contributing to joint grant proposals, commenting on manuscripts, knowledge exchange (methods and concepts).
Collaborator Contribution Drafting and contributing to joint grant proposals, commenting on manuscripts, knowledge exchange (methods and concepts).
Impact I won a British Ecological Society Early Career Project Grant (ECPG4011/4886; "Do geographically separated grassland plant populations share a common genetic response to selection by moisture stress?") to support work in collaboration with Prof Prentice.
Start Year 2010
 
Description Role of genetic diversity in determining grassland community structure under drought 
Organisation French National Institute of Agricultural Research
Department Poitou-Charentes Research Center
Country France 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I have collaborated with Dr Isabelle Litrico to investigate how genetic diversity within species from fertile grasslands alters grassland community structure. My role has been in guiding and carrying out data analyses. Together, we are discussing and refining possible mechanisms through which genetic diversity affects community structure.
Collaborator Contribution My partner at INRA has provided data from some of her experiments that have been run in Lusignan.
Impact No outputs as yet
Start Year 2016
 
Description Ness Family Science Fair for British Science Week 09/03/19 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Raj Whitlock's Research group ran outreach stalls in the Ness Botanic Gardens visitor centre. We ran make-a-plant and make-a-bug activities, magenetic games relating to molecular ecology and microbiology. We also ran botanical tours of Ness Gardens, led by Raj Whitlock
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019