Decline in medicinal and forage species with warming is mediated by plant traits on the Tibetan Plateau

  • Klein J
  • Harte J
  • Zhao X
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Experimental studies of how global changes and human activities affect plant diversity often focus on broad measures of diversity and discuss the implications of these changes for ecosystem function. We examined how experimental warming and grazing affected species within plant groups of direct importance to Tibetan pastoralists: medicinal plants used by humans and palatable plants consumed by livestock. Warming resulted in species losses from both the medicinal and palatable plant groups; however, differential relative vulnerability to warming occurred. With respect to the percent of warming-induced species losses, the overall plant community lost 27%, medicinal plants lost 21%, and non-medicinal plants lost 40% of species. Losses of palatable and non-palatable species were similar to losses in the overall plant community. The deep-rootedness of medicinal plants resulted in lowered sensitivity to warming, whereas the shallow-rootedness of non-medicinal plants resulted in greater sensitivity to warming; the variable rooting depth of palatable and non-palatable plants resulted in an intermediate response to warming. Predicting the vulnerability of plant groups to human activities can be enhanced by knowledge of plant traits, their response to specific drivers, and their distribution within plant groups. Knowledge of the mechanisms through which a driver operates, and the evolutionary interaction of plants with that driver, will aid predictions. Future steps to protect ecosystem services furnished by medicinal and palatable plants will be required under the novel stress of a warmer climate. Grazing may be an important tool in maintaining some of these services under future warming.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Ecosystem services
  • Grazing
  • Medicinal plants
  • Plant traits
  • Tibetan Plateau
  • Warming

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  • Julia A. Klein

  • John Harte

  • Xin Quan Zhao

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