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Science & Environment

Some Plants And Animals Have An Edge When It Comes To Surviving The Warming Climate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When it comes to surviving the warming climate, scientists are finding that some plants and animals have an edge. You can think of them as "super adapters," and the hope is that they can help preserve their species. Lauren Sommer from member station KQED takes us to California's Sierra Nevada to meet one.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: When California's historic drought ended a few years ago, the tally of dead trees was pretty staggering - 129 million.

PATRICIA MALONEY: It was terrible to see. It broke my heart.

SOMMER: Patricia Maloney watched it happen, as a forest and conservation biologist with UC Davis.

MALONEY: So here you have, like, a pretty large sugar pine here.

SOMMER: We're walking in a national forest on the shore of Lake Tahoe with lots of sugar pines, a tree that John Muir once called the king of conifers. And a lot of them are brown and dead. But Maloney isn't looking at those.

MALONEY: I look for the good (laughter), you know. I see that living sugar pine. I see that living sugar pine. I see that living sugar pine.

SOMMER: Against the odds, these living trees survived what killed off their neighbors - the drought, for sure. But what really did it is under the bark. She shows me where pine beetles ate winding channels through a dead tree.

MALONEY: Like little highways (laughter), little beetle highways.

SOMMER: Pine trees can usually fight the beetles off by spewing out sticky resin, which traps them. But during California's five-year drought, the trees didn't have enough water.

MALONEY: The tank ran dry, and they were unable to mobilize any sort of resin.

SOMMER: But some sugar pines could fight the beetles off, even with the drought. That got Maloney wondering - what's so special about these trees? She started studying them.

MALONEY: And what we found is that the ones that were green, like this one, were more water-use efficient than their dead counterparts.

SOMMER: The survivors could do more with less water. The drought was basically a natural experiment that weeded out all but the toughest trees. So Maloney is trying to make sure their descendants survive.

So how many do you think this is?

MALONEY: So these are about 10,000 sugar pine seedlings.

SOMMER: Back at Maloney's field station, she shows off rows of tiny 6-inch trees, each in its own container. They grew from seeds that came from 100 of the survivor sugar pines. Over the next year, these young trees will be replanted around Lake Tahoe.

MALONEY: It's like going off to college (laughter).

SOMMER: The hope is that these trees will be able to handle a changing climate and more extreme droughts.

MALONEY: These survivors matter because they may have the genetic predisposition to be more resilient to a warmer climate and maybe more frequent beetle outbreaks.

SOMMER: Maloney is looking at the genetics of these trees to figure out exactly what's giving them the edge. Scientists are starting to do this for all sorts of species.

STEVE PALUMBI: I see this next 80 years as the time when we have to save as much as possible.

SOMMER: Steve Palumbi is a biology professor at Stanford University. He's been looking for coral that can handle heat. Reefs are bleaching and dying as oceans warm, so Palumbi is growing surviving corals in the hope that they can build new reefs, kind of like "super corals."

PALUMBI: If it gives us another decade, if it gives us another two generations, then that'll be good. We'll take it.

SOMMER: But beyond that?

PALUMBI: Is it enough? Is it trivial? Those are the questions that are going to have to be answered species by species and place by place.

SOMMER: Even for these "super adapters," the climate may be changing too fast for them to keep up. But scientists are trying to give them all the help they can, by buying them a little more time.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.