Nature's memory: trees remember warm winters

Date: 8 May 2014

Introduction: A warm winter and early spring: it was clear to see that nature woke early this year throughout Western Europe due to unusually high temperatures. But what impact does this warming have on our natural environment?

In a greenhouse experiment with native oak and beech, researchers from the University of Antwerp found that a warm winter not only causes the trees to form leaves earlier, but also to lose them more quickly in autumn. Moreover, the study demonstrates that trees have a 'memory': during the next year, in the second spring season after the warm winter, the leaves sprout faster than usual as well.

The researchers highlight that warm winters may have domino effects. "The experiment clearly shows that plants carry this kind of disturbance with them for several years", the researchers point out. "Oak and beech trees provide food and shelter for many other organisms, and the shifting of the leaf period may thus have an impact on life in and around the trees.

Moreover, the young leaves could be more susceptible to frost damage in the spring." By mapping the effects of global warming, the study provides a better understanding of the possible consequences on the associated ecosystems.

The study was conducted by scientists of the research groups Plant and Vegetation Ecology (PLECO) and Molecular Plant Physiology and Biotechnology, in collaboration with the University of Basel and the University of Peking. The results of the study were published in the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Yongshuo S. H. Fu, Matteo Campioli, Yann Vitasse, Hans J. De Boeck, Joke Van den Berge, Hamada AbdElgawad, Han Asard, Shilong Piao, Gaby Deckmyn, and Ivan A. Janssens (2014) Variation in leaf flushing date influences autumnal senescence and next year’s flushing date in two temperate tree species. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA