Frequent Flora Miles: Plants Can "Hop" to Distant Lands

June 14, 2007

Looking for frequent flyer tips? Ask an Arctic plant.

The hardy flora rack up the miles as climate change sends them adrift in search of fresh places to put down roots, a new study says.

The finding suggests northern plants will be able to move with their northward-shifting habitats as the Earth warms.

Some researchers have feared many plants would wither under the heat, since long-distance plant travel is generally assumed to be rare and random.

"So it's good news," said Inger Greve Alsos, a biologist at the University Centre in Svalbard, a Norwegian island chain in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe (Norway map).

Alsos and colleagues analyzed DNA from several thousand samples of nine plant species on Svalbard.

The plants appear to have colonized the remote islands repeatedly in the last 10,000 years, the analysis suggests. To reach the islands, most plants traveled more than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

She and her colleagues report the findings in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Traveling Limits

There are limits, though, to where pants can find a new home in response to global warming, Alsos noted.

For one, plants need a suitable habitat to move to. If the Arctic warms too much, some cold-loving plants will have nowhere to go.

In addition, sea ice may be crucial for the Arctic plant dispersal. As it melts, plants will have fewer ways to float to more hospitable climate zones. (See "Arctic Ice Melting Much Faster Than Predicted" [May 1, 2007].)

Continued on Next Page >>


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