As the seasons change, we’re used to seeing large numbers of geese migrate and fly to a warmer or cooler climate. But what about plants? Even though they’re rooted in the ground, could they migrate as well? That’s the question Dr. Jennifer Boyd, UTC Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences, and a team of students are currently researching on a select group of plants found in the Appalachian region of the United States.
“The purpose of our study is to see how a population of plants would be affected by projected future climate change. As the temperature of the Earth gets warmer, we often see species move toward the poles or higher elevations where it’s cooler. This study is looking at this phenomenon for a select population of plants, like the blue stem goldenrod and several other varieties found throughout the Appalachia area,” Boyd said.
For the study, the team collected specimens of each plant from various regional areas this past summer. They traveled to collect plants, seeds, and other material in Black Rock Research Forest in upstate New York, Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee.
“We’re researching how each plant species collected from different regions in the United States responds to climate change. While the plants are the same species, there are differences based on region,” Boyd said. “We suspect that the plants collected from the northern region will adapt better to climate change because they’ve grown in cooler climates and could possibly better handle an increase in temperature. We’re predicting that the plants collected from the southern region will struggle with the rising temperatures as they are already currently living at the top of their ideal temperature range. To add more heat could be detrimental to them.”
According to Boyd, as the global climate changes, plants could migrate to different regions in an effort to find their ideal growing conditions.
“As the temperature rises, we could see whole species of plants disappear from the southern region as they move up north to cooler climates,” she said.
To test their hypothesis, Boyd and students will grow samples from each plant collected from the three different regions in growth chambers located in Grote Hall. These growth chambers provide a controlled environment that will allow Boyd and the students to regulate the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity, and light. These chambers were funded by a grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Responses from different populations will be investigated at both physiological and organismal levels.
“We’re going to simulate climate change with these growth chambers. For instance, one chamber will replicate what scientists have projected the climate to be like in the year 2100 with elevated temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels,” Boyd said.
Until the growth chambers arrive at the end of this month, Boyd has given her students the important task of keeping all the plant specimens alive until they can be moved into the chambers. For Boyd, including students in her research is natural for her.
“When I’m in the initial phases of planning my research, I always think about how to get students involved. Having students around makes research more fun. That hands-on experience of working in the field excites them. They think, ‘I’m getting to do real science,’” she said.
“It’s important get hands-on experience. Being out in the field you learn things you don’t learn in the classroom. It also gives you a better idea whether being involved in research is something you want to be involved in or not. These are the things that can’t be taught in a regular classroom, and I highly recommend to everyone who shows an interest in biological sciences to talk to a professor and see if there is any project outside of the classroom to be involved in,” she said.
Gayle Tyree, an undergraduate environmental science major, called this research project “a golden opportunity” for her.
“My area of interest is climate ecology. I’m interested in how everything is going to be affected by rising global temperatures and the implications on future generations. This project fit right into what I want to study. Since I’ve started working with Dr. Boyd, I’ve become much more driven. She’s encouraged my own critical and free thinking,” Tyree said.
Doing research with Boyd has helped Greg Raymond, a senior Biology major, see his professors differently.
“She puts a human face on what it means to be a professor. Sometimes there’s a distance between professors and students, but working with her has shown me that professors are human too. They have personalities and outside interests,” he said. “After working with Dr. Boyd, I’m talked to and gotten to know other professors. It adds to a sense of community on campus.”