Flowers Across The World Have Changed Color In The Face Of Climate Change

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In the face of climate change and other environmental upheavals, many life forms on Earth face either adaptation or extinction. In a vain effort to catch up with the evolving earth, it now seems that flowers are evolving their colors all over the world. However, this accelerated refurbishment could come at a tremendous cost to the plants.

New research has shown how flowers have quickly evolved in the past 75 years in response to increasing temperatures and diminishing ozone by modifying ultraviolet ( UV) pigments in their petals. Documented in Current Biology, scientists led by Clemson University closely looked at more than 1,200 preserved plant specimens, accounting for 42 distinct species from three continents from 1941 to 2017, and studied their extent of floral pigmentation using a UV-sensitive camera.

Their results indicate that UV-absorbing flower pigmentation improved in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the degree of petal UV pigmentation has increased globally by an average of 2% per year over the last seven decades. By no coincidence, rising pigment levels over the decades have also been closely mirrored by rising temperatures and decreasing ozone in the atmosphere.

Ozone is a gas contained in the stratosphere of the Earth that greatly absorbs incoming UV radiation from the Atmosphere. Considering that the overall amount of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere has gradually declined since the 1970s, more UV radiation has been released to plants and other life forms. Climate change often induces more extreme UV radiation. Plants need sunlight to thrive, but just like human skin, too much sunlight will kill them.

Some pigments are not visible to humans, such as the red rose petal or the yellow daffodil. Many pigments, including UV pigments, are opaque to the human eye, but the flower is used to attract pollinators and protect against UV radiation, such as sunscreen. So, while the flowers do not look that different from us, they have experienced a drastic shift in a surprisingly short period of time in an effort to conform to their changing conditions.

Not all flower petals have been affected equally. First of all, plants that suffered bigger decreases in ozone had greater changes in pigmentation. Second, plants with exposed pollen were also more likely to have increased pigmentation because this part of the plant is extremely vulnerable to UV and high-temperature stress may make pollen infertile.

Not all flower petals have been affected equally. First of all, plants that suffered bigger decreases in ozone had greater changes in pigmentation. Second, plants with exposed pollen were also more likely to have increased pigmentation because this part of the plant is extremely vulnerable to UV and high-temperature stress may make pollen infertile.

It may sound like positive news that certain flowering plants are starting to respond to the changes in their habitats, but researchers caution that this shift in pigment may come at a high cost to the reproductive success of plants, as coloring is one of the key resources for attracting pollinators. In particular, the distinction between the UV-absorbing and UV-reflecting parts of the petals could be dampened after this adaptation, making it more difficult for the plant to impress any passing pollinators.

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