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Scientists: As rainfall changes, tropical plants may acclimate

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Tropical plants may be more adaptable than commonly thought to changing rainfall patterns expected to accompany a warming climate, new research shows.

A University of Florida scientist and other researchers have found that plants in Hawaii have the ability to acclimate to big changes in rainfall in at least one important respect how they get nutrients. The plants largely rely on one form of the vital nutrient nitrogen in moist areas. But in the still wetter terrain that characterizes some rainforests, they switch to another form of nitrogen that becomes more available in those conditions.

The findings, reported in paper set to appear this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, present a notable exception to the commonly held idea that tropical plants are highly specialized in their own little environmental niches and thus very sensitive to disturbances of those niches.

That could be good for the plants because climate change is expected to radically alter rainfall patterns in the tropics. But it comes with a caveat: Nutrient uptake is only one of many ingredients in plant life. Other unrelated changes that accompany a warming climate could still affect plant distribution and growth, such as those that hold sway over pollinators, insect predators or invasive plants.

"These plants should be able to do OK in terms of their nitrogen nutrition, even with the climate changing," said Ted Schuur, a UF assistant professor of ecology and one of four authors of the paper. "But of course, we only studied one group of organisms and one mechanism in this study" and plants depend on many different mechanisms to coexist, some of which may also change with changing rainfall.

The scientists researched plant growth at six sites on the slopes of Mount Haleakala, a volcano on the island of Maui. The sites were ideal because they share the same species, elevations and
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Contact: Ted Schuur
tschuur@ufl.edu
352-392-7913
University of Florida
7-May-2007


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