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Aug 16, 2013 9:39 PM by John Patrick

Rising temps send plant life further up Mt. Lemmon

TUCSON - UA researchers discover vegetation change in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

In 1963 Robert H. Whittaker, considered the "father of modern plant ecology," catalogued the plant life along the Catalina Highway. Fifty years later University of Arizona assistant professor Wendy Moore and her colleagues have found evidence that those plants studied are being pushed to higher elevations.

Moore says, "We were surprised to find that 27 of the most common species studied had changed their distribution."

By taking a before and after approach to this study the researchers discovered that most of these plants either shifted higher in elevation or now grow in a narrower band of elevation. Moore says that this shows the plant life respond as individuals.

The group used alligator juniper as a prime example of plants being forced significantly uphill. In 1963 this species of juniper could be found at an elevation as low as 3,500 feet in the Catalina Mountains. Today, the alligator juniper can only be found above 5,000 feet along the Catalina Highway.

According to Moore this could be bad news for the rest of the plant life that thrives in the higher up. As new plants move up, the tall pine forests that top the Catalina Mountains may disappear altogether.

"Those at the very top that are a part of the mixed conifer forest have nowhere to go. They must adapt or die," explains Moore.

In the past fifty years temperatures in the area have risen about three degrees which could be what is driving these plants to the higher elevations. Moore says with hotter temperatures and less rainfall plant life will try carving out its niche to become less stressed.

For further reading on the study visit UA News.

For further information about the Santa Catalina Mountains check out Wendy Moore's book: A Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona.

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