Plants that push the envelope to resist climate change

Research Lives: Prof Yvonne Buckley, professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin

You are a professor of zoology, the study of animals, but a lot of your work is on plants. Can you explain?

I am a population ecologist, which means I look at how groups of plants and animals increase or decrease and go extinct. I’m particularly interested in how the environment drives those changes. One way we examine that is to look at the life history for a given plant species – how it grows, survives and reproduces – and compare that with the climate envelope for that species.

Climate envelope?

That's range of climate conditions where the species is found. For example, if you know that a plant grows in Europe from Norway to Spain, then you can look at those environmental conditions and build a model that tells you how likely that species is to occur in another part of the world based on the environmental conditions, like rainfall and temperature.

Why would this be helpful to know?

We want to see which plants and animal species are likely to be badly affected by climate change, and which ones are more likely to survive. So for plants living on the edge of the climate envelope, my lab has been looking at their life history – how they grow and survive and reproduce. We want to see are there aspects of their life history that make those plants more vulnerable or resistant to climate that is on the edge of what they can tolerate.

How is the work going?

We can see for some plants that are living on the edge of their climate envelope, that being able to regress to an earlier stage can be an advantage. They might revert to an underground stage and hide out until the conditions are more suitable. This kind of insight could help us identify plants at risk in climate change. Also, understanding more about these strategies that plants have could help inform conservation plans – maybe we could induce these protective pathways if a species is at risk.

You are looking very closely at one plant, why?

I'm leading a global project on ribwort plantain, which grows from sub-Arctic in Finland to sub-tropical in Queensland. It often grows in lawns, so you have probably seen it around. I'm working with around 40 collaborators at 70 sites around the world to collect data about the plant's genetics, environmental conditions and growth, survival and reproduction.

We have built up a big dataset spanning five years, and we are analysing it for the critical traits that allow ribwort plantain to live in all these different environments and climates. Do things like leaf size, number of flowering stems or the radius of the clumps of plants make a difference? Those are the kinds of things we are looking at.

Did you grow up counting plants in your garden when you were growing up in Cork?

Not quite! But I was very interested in biology, and that is what I studied at Oxford University. I quickly learned as I went through my university career that numbers and data provided the way to get at the questions I was interested in. The advantage of plants is that they don’t run away or bite you, so they are very convenient if you want to count and analyse them.

And how do you take a break?

I love camping and walking, I enjoy seeing landscapes. And I also love identifying plants as I go. When you study one species so intensively, it is quite relaxing to go out and identify lots of other species.