These plants are napping their way through climate change

By Marlene Cimons

Some plant species have found a novel way to cope with environmental dangers like a prolonged climate change-induced drought: They sleep through it.

An international research team has discovered at least 114 species capable of living dormant under the soil for up to two decades. Dubbed “Rip Van Winkle plants” by scientists, they are still alive — they just don’t poke their heads out every spring. This extended snoozing underground enables them to survive tough times in a wide variety of ecosystems.

The adaptation has evolved over many decades and may well become more common as plants change in response to climate change, according to the researchers. “The condition has evolved many, many times, and I see no reason to believe that it cannot evolve quickly in other species,” said Richard Shefferson, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Tokyo and lead author of the recent study, published in the journal Ecology Letters. “I don’t think it can be ‘learned,’ but perhaps if environmental conditions were right, then many species that we do not think go dormant might actually do so.”

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