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Are We Overestimating Climate Change’s Threat to Rare Plants?

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Research suggests trees are already out of sync with the climate Kentucky yellowwood, Cladrastis kentukea, is a small tree in the legume family, with smooth bark and white flowers that dangle like bunches of grapes. It is rare. Small, scattered populations occur in Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama, along with its namesake Kentucky. For ecologists and conservationists, this type of rarity raises a question: Why does the tree occur naturally in those places and those places only? More broadly, what is it that keeps rare, isolated species rare and isolated?

For a long time, scientists assumed that the answer, mostly, was climate. The present range of a species, by this view, was largely a reflection of where that species could stand the weather. Rare species were simply pickier. But a growing body of evidence suggests that, for plants at least, climate might be less of a limiting factor than once thought.

A study published late last year in the Journal of Biogeography supports this conclusion. A group of researchers led by ecologist Ben Seliger found that the ranges of hundreds of American tree and shrub species, including Kentucky yellowwood, are in only some of the areas […]

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