Daniel Winkler: “Mixed-bag” strategies can help plant species cope with changing climate

In this Insight, Daniel Winkler, a Research Ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Biological Science Center, discusses his paper Earlier plant growth helps compensate for reduced carbon fixation after 13 years of warming – recently shortlisted for the Haldane Prize for Early Career Researchers.

About the research

What is the background behind your paper?

The study is part of a long-term climate change experiment near Moab, Utah, that has been running for more than 15 years, mostly with support from the Department of Energy’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program. The experiment has produced dozens of papers focused on the effects of warming and altered precipitation on plants, biological soil crusts (a surface community of mosses, lichens, and/or cyanobacteria), biogeochemical cycling, invasive species, and native plant physiological responses to increasing temperatures. I joined the project in 2017 and sought to revisit and expand our understanding of one of the key plant species, Achnatherum hymenoides (a.k.a. Indian ricegrass), and how this plant that is so important for the western U.S. was performing after 13 years of continuous warming at +4 ºC above ambient temperatures.

How did you come up with the idea for it?

Earlier results from the experiment found substantial reductions in ricegrass biomass and physiological performance in response to warming. My collaborator, Dr. Sasha Reed (USGS), and I had several conversations after doing some deep dives into the climate change literature at the time and we noticed few studies, if any, linked entire suites of plant characteristics (e.g., morphological, physiological, and phenological traits of individual plants) to demographics and community-wide performance. We quickly realized this would be a valuable angle to take as subfields within ecology can oftentimes isolate themselves and we knew there’s a richer story to tell when multiple fields are combined. We also felt these long-term actively warmed plots, the only of their kind in drylands that we know of, offered a unique opportunity to ask these multi-faceted questions.

Were you surprised by anything when working on it?

I am fascinated by the overall small physiological response to warming and, more impressively, how phenological advancement and morphological plasticity appear to allow ricegrass to outperform their unwarmed conspecifics at the individual level. We were surprised to see such large, healthy plants growing in the warmed plots when overall cover and photosynthetic potential was reduced. These data provide a less dire message about the multiple ways plants have to respond to altered climate.

Why is it important?

Drylands are our planet’s largest biome, accounting for more than 40% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface. Over a third of the human population lives in dryland systems, many of whom rely heavily on plant primary production for their livelihoods. Further, drylands are intrinsically water-limited, so any perturbation resulting from drought or increasing temperatures can have substantial consequences for the ecosystem services provided by these diverse systems. This fact is even more alarming given that the area of drylands is currently expanding and is projected to continue in the coming decades. Indian ricegrass is a dominant or co-dominant perennial bunchgrass species throughout the western United States and a key priority restoration species for many of the state and federal agencies managing public lands in the western US. Ricegrass is ecologically, economically, and culturally extremely important in dryland systems in particular. Thus, anything we can figure out about this species’ natural history, it’s ability or lack of ability to withstand climate change, and which biological mechanisms drive the species’ response to warming are incredibly valuable and needed.

What are the key messages of your article?

This important species was able to balance carbon fixation limitation in response to warming by taking advantage of an earlier and longer growing season, shifting investment to ensure production, and downregulating photosynthetic rates. The ability of the species to do all of this is incredibly promising for land managers and conservationists because it demonstrates a “mixed-bag” strategy that represents one of the ways species can withstand some of the negative impacts of climate change.

About the researcher

How did you get involved in ecology?

I grew up in New York City where I connected with the natural world in small city parks. I moved out West in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the expansive, breath-taking, and untamed nature of America’s public lands. I observed the deep connections humans have in shaping these lands and decided I wanted to understand and be a part of that connection.

What is the best thing about being an ecologist?

Being an ecologist allows me to explore the natural world while uncovering the wonderful beauty of evolution on these precious landscapes. We live in a hyper-connected world where answers to many questions are available at our fingertips with a quick internet search. As a scientist, I can ask novel questions and answer them myself with experiments in the field, greenhouse, and laboratory. Being an ecologist rocks!

What do you do in your spare time?

I am a trail runner and avid hiker in my spare time. I also enjoy traveling and trying local cuisines. My favourite pastime is hanging out with my husband Kenny and our cat Meowzers in our desert garden.

You can find Daniel’s paper here, along with our other shortlisted papers.

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