29 AUG 2011: REPORT
In pockets ranging from mountain peaks to bogs, scientists are discovering plants and animals that survived previous eras of climate change. Now, conservation biologists say, these climate “relicts” could shed light on how some species may hang on in the coming centuries.
A two-hour’s drive north of Madrid is an extraordinary sight: forests of beech trees. It’s not the European beech itself that’s extraordinary. After all, Fagus sylvatica grows across a wide swath of the continent. It’s beech trees in central Spain that are strange. To grow, beeches require a moist, relatively cool climate — a climate that’s almost impossible to find in central Spain. “They’re limited to cool moist valleys in a hot, dry mountain range,” explains Alistair Jump, an ecologist at the University of Stirling who studies the trees.
The trees, which lie about 200 miles south of the edge of the main range of European beeches, did not get to central Spain recently, their seeds carried on the shoe of some German tourist. Evidence from both fossils and genes shows that beeches have lived in some parts of Spain since the last Ice Age. At the time, most of Europe was either buried under ice or too harsh a climate for the beeches to survive. But after the Ice Age, suitable habitats opened up, and the beeches expanded from their southern refuges into the north.
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