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“Dangerously Misleading” – Scientists Using Flawed Strategy in Predicting Species Responses to Climate Change

New research reveals that the space-for-time substitution method, used to predict species responses to climate change, inaccurately forecasts the impact of warming on the ponderosa pine. This finding suggests that the method may not be reliable in predicting the future responses of species to changing climates. Credit:

A new study involving University of Arizona researchers suggests change is happening faster than trees can adapt. The finding offers “a word of caution for ecologists” studying climate change.

As the world heats up and the climate shifts, life will migrate, adapt, or go extinct. For decades, scientists have deployed a specific method to predict how a speciesA species is a group of living organisms that share a set of common characteristics and are able to breed and produce fertile offspring. The concept of a species is important in biology as it is used to classify and organize the diversity of life. There are different ways to define a species, but the most widely accepted one is the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring in nature. This definition is widely used in evolutionary biology and ecology to identify and classify living organisms.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>species will fare during this time of great change. However, according to new research, that method might be producing results that are misleading or wrong.

Flaws in Predictive Methods Revealed

University of Arizona researchers and their team members at the U.S. Forest Service and Brown University found that the method – commonly referred to as space-for-time substitution – failed to accurately predict how a widespread tree of the Western U.S., called the ponderosa pine, has actually responded to the last several decades of warming. This also implies that other research relying on space-for-time substitution may not accurately reflect how species will respond to climate change over the next several decades.

The team collected and measured ponderosa pine tree rings from across the Western U.S. going as far back as 1900 and compared the trees’ actual growth to how the model predicted the trees should respond to warming.

Overlooking Ponderosa Pine Forest

A view overlooking a forest of ponderosa pine and Jeffrey pine from Verdi Mountain near Truckee in California. Credit: Daniel Perret

“We found that space-for-time substitution generates predictions that are wrong in terms of whether the response to warming is a positive or negative one,” said Margaret Evans, a coauthor on the paper and an associate professor in the UArizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. “This method says that ponderosa pines should benefit from warming, but they actually suffer with warming. This is dangerously misleading.”

Their findings were published on December 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. U.S. Forest Service ORISE Fellow Daniel Perret is first author and received his tree ring analysis training at the UArizona laboratory through the university’s summer field methods course. This research was part of his doctoral dissertation at Brown University with Dov Sax, a professor of biogeography and biodiversity and coauthor on the paper.

Inaccuracies in Space-for-Time Substitution

This is how space-for-time substitution works: Every species occupies its preferred range of climate conditions. Scientists have assumed that the individuals growing at the hotter end of that range can serve as an example of what might happen to populations at cooler locations in a warmer future.

The team found that ponderosa pine trees grow at a faster rate at warmer locations. Under the space-for-time substitution paradigm, then, this suggests that as the climate warms at the cool edge of distribution, things should be getting better.

“But in the tree ring data, that’s not what it looks like,” Evans said.

However, when the team used tree rings to assess how individual trees responded to changes in temperature, they found that the ponderosas were consistently negatively impacted by temperature variability.

“If it’s a warmer-than-average year, they put on a smaller-than-average ring, so warming is actually bad for them, and that’s true everywhere,” she said.

The team suspects that this is happening because the trees can’t adapt fast enough to keep up with the quickly changing climate.

An individual tree and all its rings are a record of the genetics of that specific tree being exposed to different climatic conditions in one year compared to the next, Evans said. But how a species responds as a whole is the result of the slow pace of evolutionary adaptation to the average conditions at a specific location, which are different from another location. Like evolution, migration of better-adapted trees with the changing temperatures could potentially rescue species, but climate change is happening too fast, Evans said.

Impact of Rainfall and Final Thoughts

Beyond temperature, the team also investigated how trees respond to rainfall. They confirmed that more water is always better, whether you look across time or space.

“These spatially based predictions are really dangerous, because the spatial patterns reflect an end point after a long period of time when species have had a chance to evolve and disperse and, ultimately, sort themselves out on the landscape,” Evans said. “But that’s just not how climate change works. Unfortunately, the trees find themselves in a situation where change is happening faster than the trees can adapt, which is really putting them at risk of going extinct. It’s a word of caution for ecologists.”

Reference: “A species’ response to spatial climatic variation does not predict its response to climate change” by Daniel L. Perret, Margaret E. K. Evans and Dov F. Sax, 18 December 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2304404120

Funding: Brown University Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, American Philosophical Society Lewis & Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research, USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, DOE Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, NSF Macrosystems Biology

Source: SciTechDaily