Plant responses to elevated temperatures: a field study on phenological sensitivity and fitness responses to simulated climate warming



Significant changes in plant phenology have been observed in response to increases in mean global temperatures. There are concerns that accelerated phenologies can negatively impact plant populations. However, the fitness consequence of changes in phenology in response to elevated temperature is not well understood, particularly under field conditions. We address this issue by exposing a set of recombinant inbred lines of Arabidopsis thaliana to a simulated global warming treatment in the field. We find that plants exposed to elevated temperatures flower earlier, as predicted by photothermal models. However, contrary to life-history trade-off expectations, they also flower at a larger vegetative size, suggesting that warming probably causes acceleration in vegetative development. Although warming increases mean fitness (fruit production) by ca. 25%, there is a significant genotype-by-environment interaction. Changes in fitness rank indicate that imminent climate change can cause populations to be maladapted in their new environment, if adaptive evolution is limited. Thus, changes in the genetic composition of populations are likely, depending on the species’ generation time and the speed of temperature change. Interestingly, genotypes that show stronger phenological responses have higher fitness under elevated temperatures, suggesting that phenological sensitivity might be a good indicator of success under elevated temperature at the genotypic level as well as at the species level.