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BU researchers study potential loss of wildflower population due to climate change

The National Science Foundation awarded Boston University, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Pittsburgh a joint grant Tuesday to study climate change and invasive plant effects for a three-year research project. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Woodland flowers may be the latest victim of climate change in the eastern United States.

Boston University researchers are launching a research project to determine if warmer-than-usual temperatures cause trees native to the eastern region to grow spring leaves earlier than wildflowers, according to the National Science Foundation. This would limit sunlight and potentially impact the wildflower population and ecosystem diversity.

The NSF recently awarded researchers at BU, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Pittsburgh $646,000 for a three-year collaborative research project to study the “phenological mismatch between trees and wildflowers mediated by environmental variability and plant invasions.”

Richard Primack, a professor of biology and climate change researcher at BU, said the collaborative project aims at determining if trees native to the eastern part of the country respond more rapidly to climate change than woodland flowers.

“If this is the case, the wildflowers might be getting shaded out in the spring, which leads to their inability to mature fruits in the summer and to flower in the later years,” Primack said.

Primack said his team’s focus in the study is on the “herbarium specimens,” museum specimens of plants collected from the past used to determine how plants are responding to a changing climate across the entire eastern United States.

“This work builds on the observations of the famous environmental philosopher Henry David Thoreau from the 1850s in Concord, Massachusetts,” Primack said, “combined with our own observations from 2004 to the present, which show that trees are now leafing out earlier now than in the past and wildflowers are flowering earlier than in the past.”

Much of this research is carried out by BU graduate student Tara Miller as part of her PhD research, Primack said. Miller’s role is to coordinate data collection from herbarium specimens and compare responses of trees and wildflowers to warming temperatures in North America. 

Miller wrote in an email that this research could show climate change in ways people can see with their own eyes.

“Many people enjoy seeing spring wildflowers, such as trillium or Dutchman’s breeches, and are concerned to hear that these species may be at risk with a warming climate,” Miller wrote. “Even this past month, many people noticed plants in Boston putting out buds and leaves during the warm January weather.”

Miller is looking forward to working on a climate change research project that resonates with people, she wrote.

“This project is important ecologically, but it is also able to reach people with an impact of climate change that is close to home,” Miller wrote.

Primack said he is most excited about collaboration between BU’s research team and and researchers in China and Germany, who are carrying out comparable studies in their own countries.  

“This will allow us to determine if this is really a global phenomenon of trees responding more  rapidly to a warming climate than wildflowers,” Primack said. 

Luwa Yin, a sophomore in the College of Communication, said she hopes the collaborative efforts of BU, University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History will contribute to global research on climate change.

“I think that it is very important for BU to study climate change with another university and the museum,” Yin said. “The exchange of the findings each university has might contribute to the overall study of climate change that the whole country’s doing.”

Xiaoyu Yan, a freshman in Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said she appreciates that BU is involved in climate change research. 

“It is kind of cool how these researchers are relating plants to climate change,” Yan said.  “People need to be educated about the consequences of climate change, because people don’t seem to know how important this is.”

Charu Tiwari, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she sees the need for climate change research and appreciates that BU is contributing to advancements in the field.

“I believe that this research project is important because climate change is an ongoing issue in today’s society,” Tiwari said. “It is important for researchers to study this.”

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