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Whether a species can evolve to survive climate change may depend upon other plants and animals living in its community.

That is according to a new mathematical model developed by Tucker Gilman, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The model simulates the effect of climate change on plants and pollinators.

Gilman’s findings are published in the early online edition of Evolutionary Applications.

Th research is important because is shows that some species that have survived large climatic change in the past might not be able to survive current and ongoing climate change. Gilman’s research focuses on mutualists, species which rely on one another, and has found that they are likely to be especially sensitive to rapid climate change.

In the study, Gilman and his team used computer simulations to examine the effect of climate change on populations of flowering plants and their insect pollinators. Ecologists have known for many years that climate change alters the timing of when plants flower and when insects emerge. For example, global warming has coincided with some plants blossoming sooner and insects emerging earlier than usual in the Northern hemisphere. If climate change causes mutualists to be active at different times, then these species may become extinct.

“The results are troubling because human-caused climate change is thought to be happening up to ten times faster than any natural climate change in the past 500,000 years,” Gilman said. “This means that mutualisms that have survived past climate change events may still be vulnerable to human-caused climate change.”

The question that remains is whether the process of evolution can mitigate the potential damage that climate change can inflict upon the timing of life-cycle events.

Gilman found that in some cases evolution can rescue plant-pollinator mutualisms that would otherwise die off due to climate change. However, whether mutualism survives can depend upon the density and distribution of other species in the community. For instance, under many circumstances, the presence of other pollinators can help protect both plant and pollinator from extinction.

“In such cases, habitat fragmentation or the loss of native pollinators might compound the threat of climate change to mutualisms,” said Gilman.

NIMBioS brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. NIMBioS is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the US Department of Agriculture, with additional support UT Knoxville.