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Annual plants change in size over a century of observations



Studies have documented changes in animal body sizes over the last century, but very little is known about changes in plant sizes, even though reduced plant productivity is potentially responsible for declines in size of other organisms. Here, I ask whether warming trends in the Great Basin have affected plant size by measuring specimens preserved on herbarium sheets collected between 1893 and 2011. I asked how maximum and minimum temperatures, precipitation, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) in the year of collection affected plant height, leaf size, and flower number, and asked whether changes in climate resulted in decreasing sizes for seven annual forbs. Species had contrasting responses to climate factors, and would not necessarily be expected to respond in parallel to climatic shifts. There were generally positive relationships between plant size and increased minimum and maximum temperatures, which would have been predicted to lead to small increases in plant sizes over the observation period. While one species increased in size and flower number over the observation period, five of the seven species decreased in plant height, four of these decreased in leaf size, and one species also decreased in flower production. One species showed no change. The mechanisms behind these size changes are unknown, and the limited data available on these species (germination timing, area of occupancy, relative abundance) did not explain why some species shrank while others grew or did not change in size over time. These results show that multiple annual forbs are decreasing in size, but that even within the same functional group, species may have contrasting responses to similar environmental stimuli. Changes in plant size could have cascading effects on other members of these communities, and differential responses to directional change may change the composition of plant communities over time.