Central to the field of ecology is the mantra that species do not exist in isolation: They assemble in communities — and within these communities, species interact. Predators hunt prey. Parasites exploit hosts. Pollinators find flowers.
Yet these interactions are built on more than just serendipity, because species adapt over generations to environmental cues. But when conditions shift due to climate change, species might change markedly in response — creating “reassembled” communities that might show disrupted interactions among species.
Recently, a trio of ecologists from the University of Washington witnessed such reassembly. It was by accident: They were collecting data on the subalpine wildflowers that bloom each summer on the slopes of Mount Rainier, a volcano stretching 14,411 feet high (4,932 meters) in the Cascade Range of Washington state. As they report in a paper published online on Oct. 11 in the journal Ecology, an unseasonably warm, dry summer in 2015 caused reassembly among these subalpine wildflower communities.
The conditions in 2015 gave the team — consisting of doctoral student Elli Theobald, doctoral student Ian Breckheimer and biology professor Janneke Hille Ris Lambers — a preview of what subalpine communities may look like by the end of this century. By then, significant climate change is expected to permanently alter environmental cues that wildflowers rely upon and make community reassembly a more common phenomenon — with unknown consequences for species interactions in those communities.
“2015 was such an outlier that it gave us a glimpse of what this environment on Mount Rainier might be like toward the end of this century,” said Theobald, who is co-lead-author on the paper with Breckheimer. “Conditions were so warm that they affected the flowering time and flowering duration of species, forming communities in 2015 that simply did not exist in the other years of our study.”
Their study is one of few to demonstrate evidence for community-level reassembly among multiple species.
“These reassembled communities could potentially change the interactions among wildflowers and other species in this subalpine setting,” said Theobald.
Read the full article in UW Today.
PC: Lupines on Mount Rainier // Elli Theobald