Pulling the rug out from under the trees

Lou | Photo: Kristin Nurkowski

Our resident robot programming, DNA wrangling lab guru Kristin Nurkowski has a rabbit named Lou. He’s aggressively friendly and hops around in the ridiculous manner only such a well cared for bunny can.


Lou plays on a small, beige rug. He seems to be sedate and affectionate, but when he accidentally hops off the rug onto the hard, slippery floor, he’s transformed into a frantic bundle of scrabbling terror.

Like Lou, most species have a certain environment they find agreeable and the trees we study in the Aitken lab are no different. As climate changes, suitable climate for a species is shifted towards higher elevations and latitudes, and like Lou, the trees no longer on the rug of suitable climate are left in bad shape.

Large areas of the northern hemisphere are dominated by coniferous forests. Many of the species within these forests have vast ranges, encompassing remarkably diverse climates. Adaptation to those local climates is common in conifers, so instead of climate change pulling one big rug and leaving just one end of the distribution in bad shape, climate change pulls a lot of little rugs throughout the range leaving large parts of the range in bad shape.

Trees aren’t quite as sensitive to climate change as Lou, however, and established trees can survive quite awful conditions for a long time. Unfortunately, theoretical work and simulation studies suggest that toughness could actually increase the likelihood that trees in a particular area will be wiped out by climate change – if the tough trees don’t die, young (and possibly better adapted migrant) seedlings can’t get established. By the time the tough old trees do die, there might not be any young trees to replace them!

Just one of the reasons the Aitken lab studies local adaptation in trees!


Atkins KE, Travis JMJ: Local adaptation and the evolution of species’ ranges under climate change. Journal of theoretical biology 2010, 266:449–57.

Kuparinen A, Savolainen O, Schurr FM: Increased mortality can promote evolutionary adaptation of forest trees to climate change. Forest Ecology and Management 2010, 259:1003–1008.


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