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Research to guide restoration in changing climates

Date: April 22, 2015


The distribution of plant species and populations will likely be reshaped as climate changes. In the intermountain West, shrub species play critical roles in desert and semi-desert ecosystem function. Healthy functioning shrub ecosystems support a diverse array of flora and fauna. Understanding these changes is complex and requires the integration of multiple research disciplines including genetics, climate modeling and biogeography. This research focuses on blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima), a widespread shrub that straddles the ecotone, transition area between two plant communities, from the Great Basin and Mojave Desert ecosystems.

​Blackbrush plant community in the Arches National Park, Utah
​Blackbrush plant community in the Arches National Park, Utah


Scientists analyzed vegetative responses, including survival, growth, and carbon isotope ratios in two blackbrush common gardens that included 26 populations from a range-wide collection. Studying these responses in blackbrush led to the discovery that this species possesses considerable adaptive genetic variation across its distribution. An assessment of these plant responses with climate found that minimum temperatures greatly affect growth and survival of certain populations. The ability to map the relationship between climate and vegetative response within the boundaries of the species allowed scientists to project climate-based, adaptive genetic variation for the contemporary climate and for the decade surrounding 2060. This research provides the framework for delineating climate change-responsive seed transfer guidelines needed to inform restoration and management planning.

Key Findings

These results suggest that:

  • Blackbrush populations are primarily adapted to winter temperatures,
  • The species is predicted to expand into the Great Basin by mid-century,
  • Cold-adapted population will be most suited for this projected northward expansion, and
  • Keeping pace with climate change will require the human-mediated dispersal of seed.

Featured Publications

Richardson, Bryce A. ; Kitchen, Stanley G. ; Pendleton, Rosemary L. ; Pendleton, Burton K. ; Germino, Matthew J. ; Rehfeldt, Gerald E. ; Meyer, Susan E. , 2014

External Partners: 
Matthew Germino, U.S. Geological Survey
Research Location: 
California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah