Evolutionary and plastic responses to climate change in terrestrial plant populations

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As climate change progresses, we are observing widespread changes in phenotypes in many plant populations. Whether these phenotypic changes are directly caused by climate change, and whether they result from phenotypic plasticity or evolution, are active areas of investigation. Here, we review terrestrial plant studies addressing these questions. Plastic and evolutionary responses to climate change are clearly occurring. Of the 38 studies that met our criteria for inclusion, all found plastic or evolutionary responses, with 26 studies showing both. These responses, however, may be insufficient to keep pace with climate change, as indicated by eight of 12 studies that examined this directly. There is also mixed evidence for whether evolutionary responses are adaptive, and whether they are directly caused by contemporary climatic changes. We discuss factors that will likely influence the extent of plastic and evolutionary responses, including patterns of environmental changes, species’ life history characteristics including generation time and breeding system, and degree and direction of gene flow. Future studies with standardized methodologies, especially those that use direct approaches assessing responses to climate change over time, and sharing of data through public databases, will facilitate better predictions of the capacity for plant populations to respond to rapid climate change.

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