Perhaps Taylor Swift cannot take the heat of being in the blaring spotlight, but plants definitely can. Nowadays, natural is everything. We are loading up on coconut oil and unbleached organic tampons, as we riot against GMOs and the detrimental human impact on the Earth. While these behaviors are not baseless or wrong, this tendency could lead us to analyze the conservation of biodiversity at too close of a range.
Taking a comprehensive look at the history of all species, it is clear that mass extinctions have occurred in the absence of the human race, some even due to drastic climate change. How could such events take place and not leave the Earth completely lifeless? Daniele Silvestro suggests that, “in the plant kingdom, mass extinction events can be seen as opportunities for turnover leading to renewed biodiversity.” In the midst of these reconstructions of species diversity, plants have proven to be more robust than animals and thus are able to sustain life from the ground up.
A study published in the journal Nature Plants by Dr. Michaletz at Los Alamos National Laboratory found that climate alterations have a smaller impact on plants than originally postulated due to plants’ advantageous ability to self-regulate the temperature of their leaves. This positive characteristic is largely autonomous from the temperature of the external environment allowing plants to make independent adaptations, which help to augment carbon absorption. Subsequently, plants maintain proper growth and development by supporting the photosynthesis process in this way. This finding could explain why plant species take significantly longer and require much more dramatic environmental modifications to go extinct than animal species. Further it supports the fact that over time, new plant species effectively replace old species such that the difference in plant biodiversity is minimal and in some circumstances, essentially nonexistent.
Plant thermoregulation not only changes the perspective with which we should approach species conservation, but also our society’s energy budget. Excessive carbon emissions due to human activity were initially offset through plant uptake of this compound. Recently, carbon absorption reached its threshold, which was promptly surpassed as human-induced carbon release continued to escalate exponentially. Moreover, the threshold itself is declining due to the lack of sustainable, terrestrial utilization in regard to practices such as agriculture. Without other nutrients in the soil such as phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium, plants have a lower capacity to uptake carbon despite their beneficial thermoregulatory characteristics. This stunting effect is yet another reason why reverting to the very bottom of the energy pyramid provides a more holistic picture of what we can do to make a difference. The environment deserves more credit for its evolutionary resilience, and as we recognize some of these specific advantages, our attacks on environmental health at every angle can surely be rearranged to accommodate what plants can and cannot tolerate.
The human population is quick to protect the most universally aesthetic species that walk the Earth today. In fact, tailoring research in order to exploit the popularization of some endangered animals has successfully brought more global attention to the conservation movement from a broader audience. And to be sure, the human impact has proven to be deleterious beyond natural parameters when compared to climate trends in the past. If this recent climate change is even remotely natural, humans are still absolutely exacerbating it. However, it is apparent from history that biodiversity has the ability to look very different across time. Our relatively short lifespans have caused us to expect to see evolution right before our eyes, when in reality, a problem of this magnitude is not likely to arise and be solved, or even begin to be solved, within our lifetimes. With the limited resources we have, our priority should shift from a focus on charismatic animal martyrs, to harnessing efforts that will support the “turnover” of species that is likely to occur, whether it produces adorable, furry species or not.