Adaptation pathways for aquatic plants under climate change PDF Print E-mail

Adaptation pathways for aquatic plants under climate change: facilitating dispersal and management interventions


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Project overview


The aim of this project is to use information on the distribution of aquatic plant species, and information from the peer reviewed literature and expert knowledge, to develop and apply life history models for the major aquatic plant species found within major geo/climatic regions of Australia. These empirical models will be used to predict changes in the distribution of aquatic plant species in response to projected changes in water regulation and climate, at different latitudes/altitudes across Australia. The objective is to identify adaptation pathways for aquatic plants that facilitate dispersal and assist in the identification of vulnerable species and poor dispersers that will require direct management interventions to adapt to climate change and to determine the array of wetlands required to best facilitate dispersal.

The project will also develop and test the empirical models, based on life history traits, of the potential dispersal of aquatic/wetland plants along inundation, rainfall and temperature gradients. An understanding of potential changes in distribution of aquatic plants and the major dispersal pathways and mechanisms will provide knowledge that is vital to underpin a sustainable environmental watering scheme for maximizing dispersal and maintaining biodiversity at both local and regional scales.

The innovative component of the proposal concerns linking expert knowledge on the current distribution of aquatic/wetland plants with flow and climate scenario to produce guidance for NRM purposes. It relies on an understanding of the biology of the species included within functional grouping of species being combined with future problems associated with biodiversity conservation under changing flows and climate. It can also provide guidance on ecological responses to environmental flows, an area of research that is currently of national importance, especially, but not only in the Murray-Darling Basin. The data and knowledge for this project exists, but have not been previously brought together in an Australian context. The outcome can also be presented in a manner that is suitable for rapid decision making, or for more detailed analysis of the requirements for conserving specific species or groups of plants, and making decisions whether or not active management interventions will be needed for conservation purposes, including restoration of already degraded wetlands, or those affected by further water resource management or by climate change.

The empirical models will also provide a basis for further research directions on the biology of aquatic/wetland plants, including the potential for introduced species to survive under different water regimes.


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Root exposure due to change in water regime, Melaleuca Quinquenervia, North Stradbroke Island, 2005.


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Inundation of Melaleuca Quinquenervia open-woodland, North Stradbroke Island 1994.


For further information about the activities of this group, please contact the Principal Investigator, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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Products and outcomes


Data portal plans

The Working Group is preparing a geo-referenced database with site specific details (location, description, management), a site-specific species list, and the species can be allocated to different groups in relation to salinity tolerance, native versus exotic, water regime (WaterPlantFunctionalGroups), and potentially other characteristics like tolerance of eutrophication, broad temperature tolerance, carbon acquisition pathway, vulnerability to grazing.


In the first instance it will be a descriptive database, as a summary of what currently exists.


As it becomes more complete, and we fill in the gaps, it will be able to be interrogated in relation to potential changes in management (e.g. cessation or introduction of grazing), increased salinity or changed water regime.


An example of the first stage of this project is shown for a site in the Wannon River area in Victoria, Australia.


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Final report


Download their final report here [1.6MB]


Workshop reports




Workshop 1 Report (21-24 May 2012)

The first meeting of the working group for this synthesis project met at Linnaeus estate near Lennox Heads.

The working group initially considered how well wetland/riverine plants could disperse in the face of climate change and reduced water availability. This intention was extended early in the discussions to address the broader and more complex issue of the vulnerability of wetland plants to climate change, incorporating the dispersal and re-colonisation concepts.

The group decided to focus on inland wetlands (non-tidally influenced) and include floodplain, native and non-native species. Outcomes will be presented in a peer-reviewed paper, a general briefing paper on key knowledge gaps and research, and a decision support document.

As an initial approach it was decided to start with the concept of vulnerability of wetland plants to climate change and to consider the traits that would enable them to adapt. In this scenario vulnerability is considered to be sensitivity minus adaptive capacity to a discrete or combination of drivers of change (or pressures).  
A number of drivers of change were identified and considered to ascertain if functional groups (based on known plant traits) could be developed and whether these could be used for a vulnerability assessment against each driver. The drivers included: increase in temperature; increase in carbon dioxide; hydrological change (for which a functional grouping already exists); water quality, human responses and land use; and fire. Tables of plant traits that were important for responses to these drivers were developed on the basis of being able to assign values to these. Further consideration of these traits is needed and it is likely that the number of traits will be reduced.

The working group decided to use a case study approach to test the usefulness of functional groups against the drivers of change to take into account regional differences. These case studies will be based on the availability of existing datasets. Case studies will encompass a number of different climatic regions within Australia.

The next workshop, likely to be in February 2013, will revisit the concepts of vulnerability, the derivation of functional groups based on plant traits for the drivers of change, and the potential for developing a decision support system for managers. The expansion of the work plan to include more than plant dispersal and to consider vulnerability to a number of drivers of change has considerably expanded the potential usefulness of the initial concept, and with an increased level of complexity for the working group to consider.

This summary will be augmented by worked examples of the matrices for some of the abovementioned drivers of change. These are being reviewed and will be posted at a later date.


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Back l-r: Robert Godfree, Adrian Clements, Keith Ward, Jason Nicol Middle l-r: Darryl Neilsen, Michelle Casanova, Cassandra James, Samantha Capon, Lyndsey Vivian  Front l-r: Patrick Driver, Ray Froend, Max Finlayson and Arnold van der Valk


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Workshop 2 Report (4-8 February 2013)

The second meeting of the working group for this synthesis project met in Brisbane at the University of Queensland.

The working group meeting began by reconsidering the outcomes from the previous meeting and confirmed the 4 major activities that would be developed further. It was also confirmed that the focus would remain on non-tidally influenced inland wetlands and include floodplain, native and non-native species. There was some discussion about whether plants at the drier end of the water regime should be included, but a final decision will be left until the initial analysis of functional groups is undertaken, as this may well provide the answer.

The four activities were addressed by sub-groups that reported back to daily plenary sessions. Each of the four activities is considered in the text below.

1. Plant functional groups – the sub-group for this meeting included Michelle Casanova, Keith Ward & Max Finlayson

This work was based on the discussion and initial species listing and identification of drivers of change and traits that could mediate responses in wetland plants. It was decided to construct a master list of wetland plants, derived largely, but not only, from site-based species lists, which will be used for developing plant functional groups for the drivers/traits previously identified. The species listing will contain species/genus, family, and common names, the taxonomic authority, and existing information on functional groups. A range of sites and likely contact points were agreed and requests for information sent using a 'form letter' and excel template.

Please contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if you are interested in contributing to this activity.

2. Plant dispersal – sub-group for this meeting included Daryl Nielsen, Jane Roberts, Lindsey Vivian, Cherie Campbell & Jason Nicol

An advanced outline of a paper on wetland plant dispersal was developed and initial contributors assigned. The current title of the paper is “The effects of climate change scenarios on dispersal of aquatic/wetland plants in Australia”. It is intended to provide an outline of the importance of dispersal generally, then enlarge on this with regards to aquatic/wetland plants, noting that this is an unusual group of species as dispersal of vegetative parts/propagules features prominently. It will focus on ‘dispersal’ not on ‘establishment’ and contain an overview of the state of knowledge of dispersal mechanism and principal vectors for plants; and for wetland plants, outline the likely effects of climate change across Australia, contrasting regions to show regional similarities and differences, and postulate effects on dispersal and likely significance and possible consequences for wetland biota, ecology and conservation.

A first draft is expected by 1 May and final draft by mid-September.

3. Plant succession – sub-group for this meeting included Arnold van der Valk, Pat Driver, Jason Nicol, Max Finlayson, Michelle Casanova and Adrian Clements.

An outline was prepared for a paper with the working title of “Succession and climate change”. It is intended to use successional theory to predict changes in the species composition (flora) of comparable, paired wetlands caused by short-term cyclical changes in hydrology (wet-dry cycles) as they exist today and as they are predicted to be in the future as a result of long-term changes in hydrology caused by climate change. It is assumed that the same factors (dispersal, establishment, and extirpation) that produce changes in species composition in the short-term are still those that are important in the long-term. However, there are many uncertainties associated with predicting the future composition of wetlands in areas whose climates have changed.

As successional analysis suggests that three factors may play an important role in predicting the species composition of future vegetation of a wetland, namely (1) which species can persist and which will not, (2) what are the characteristics of species that can migrate to a site and become established  with a suitable climate in the future, and (3) what new species may become established in a wetland. In effect, this is a species budget approach to dealing with the potential consequences of climate change on the flora of a specific wetland case. A successional approach can also be used to examine how much environmental conditions have to change to produce a new type of wetland and how long would this take based on current global climate change predictions.

A first draft is expected by early June and final draft by mid-September.

4. Vulnerability of wetland plants to climate change – sub-group for this meeting included Max Finlayson and Sam Capon (by phone).

It was decided to continue with this activity after the meeting in order to enable input based on the above-mentioned analyses and papers. A separate sub-group meeting is intended to develop a framework for assessing vulnerability to climate change based on the concepts outlined in the IPCC and adopted by the Ramsar Convention, namely the resilience and sensitivity of wetland plants. It is intended to present the framework in a journal paper.


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Workshop Two 4-8 February 2013 Left to right: Lindsay Vivian (CSIRO Plant Industry), Patrick Driver (NSW Office of Water), Cherie Campbell (Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre), Keith Ward (Goulburn-Broken CMA), Daryl Nielsen (Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre), Max Finlayson (Charles Sturt University), Arnold van der Valk (Iowa State University, USA), Jason Nicol (South Australia Research and Development Institute), Michelle Casanova (Royal Botanic Gardens) and Adrian Clements (Charles Sturt University). Absent: Jane Roberts (Consultant).


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Last Updated on Sunday, 08 February 2015 15:48