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Geography of Demography: modelling plant population responses to global habitat patterns

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GEODEM (Geography of Demography: modelling plant population responses to global habitat patterns)

Reporting period: 2015-06-01 to 2017-05-31

Predicting the locations where plant species occur, or could occur, is a critical challenge for ecologists in the coming decades. As the global climate alters, it changes where different plants can persist. As a result, it is imperative that we understand how plant populations respond to climatic constraints and use that information to predict how they are likely to respond to climatic changes in the future. Forecasts of plant redistributions on Earth due to climate change have been focused on estimating losses in the amount and quality of habitat conditions. However, an important consequence of environmental changes on living organisms has remained largely unexplored: the spatial reconfiguration of suitable habitats, such as the increasing loss of connection between habitat patches throughout species’ area of distribution.
Plants support the very survival of the human race. They provide us food, pastures for livestock, and places for recreation and wellbeing. They also directly and indirectly provide numerous invaluable ecosystem services such as water regulation, carbon sequestration and flood prevention. To safeguard these ecosystem services, we need to provide conservation managers robust ecological models able to identify species vulnerable or resistant to deteriorating habitat conditions or to major habitat reconfigurations.
During GEODEM I examined the geographic configuration of habitat patches suitable for hundreds of plant species. My aim was to develop predictive models of how these biogeographic patterns vary with species’ biological properties and geophysical constraints on the persistence and expansion of plant populations.
Together with my collaborators I quantified the arrangement of suitable habitats for hundreds of plant species and I examined whether these patterns are determined by species’ biological properties, large geographic barriers to seed dispersal or the range of elevations over which different plants can survive. I also examined how different plants respond to habitat conditions that span from less favourable to highly favourable. The research unveiled pathways of vulnerability and resistance by which tree and herb species respond to climatic constraints, advancing a new framework for investigating global responses of plants to climate. The first results have been published in the prestigious journal Ecology Letters and has received important media coverage. Throughout the course of the project, the research has been disseminated at about 20 different scientific forums, public outreach events, social media, international research news outlets etc., including the European Researcher's Night event in Ireland, “Discover Research Dublin”, and the large scientific conferences of the International Biogeography Society.
GEODEM has addressed fundamental theoretical concepts in ecology, advancing our understanding of how plants interact with their physical environment over large geographic extents and emerging important generalizations across multiple species globally. Incorporating the configuration of suitable habitats in analyses of the geographic distribution of plants can significantly improve our ability to anticipate how these organisms will respond to shifting climate conditions worldwide. These results demonstrate that analysing how different living organisms react to the quality and configuration of habitat patches over large geographic scales can reveal universal mechanisms that determine the distribution of species on Earth. Our models will have important conservation applications in the future, e.g. measures of connectivity of populations, creation of migration corridors, identification of areas of potential species extinction and expansion, nature reserve design, and will potentially open up avenues for developing new theory in Macroecology and Biogeography research in the future.
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