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July 06, 2008

Where have all the flowers gone?

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE? These words from Walden hint at the careful plant and animal records Henry David Thoreau kept during his stay at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800s. By retracing this young naturalist's footsteps, not once but twice in the past century, researchers have been able to chronicle the fate of hundreds of plant species as the New England climate has changed since Thoreau's time. Using that data, Harvard University graduate student Charles Willis and colleagues have detected a disturbing pattern, one that he described last week in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the Evolution 2008 meeting.


Flower man: Thoreau closely tracked Walden Pond plants.

By building a flora family tree that incorporates the "Thoreau" species and mapping onto the tree each plant's response to the 2°C increase in the region's average temperature since the famed author was at Walden Pond, the researchers have discovered that climate change has placed whole groups of plants at risk and that the more charismatic wildflowers that prompt conservation efforts, such as orchids, are among the most vulnerable. The study is "an intriguing combination of historical data sets and modern molecular methods to address in a very novel way climate change effects," says Carol Horvitz, a plant evolutionary ecologist at the University of Miami, Florida. "I think it's brilliant." Science, Vol. 321, No. 5885, 4 July 2008, pp. 24-25.


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