Understanding reasons for biodiversity loss is essential for developing conservation and management strategies and is becoming increasingly urgent with climate change. Growing at elevations <1.4 m in the Florida Keys, USA, the endangered Key tree cactus (Pilosocereus robinii) experienced 84 percent loss of total stems from 1994 to 2007. The most severe losses of 99 and 88 percent stems occurred in the largest populations in the Lower Keys, where nine storms with high wind velocities and storm surges, occurred during this period. In contrast, three populations had substantial stem proliferation. To evaluate possible mortality factors related to changes in climate or forest structure, we examined habitat variables: soil salinity, elevation, canopy cover, and habitat structure near 16 dying or dead and 18 living plants growing in the Lower Keys. Soil salinity and elevation were the preliminary factors that discriminated live and dead plants. Soil salinity was 1.5 times greater, but elevation was 12 cm higher near dead plants than near live plants. However, distribution-wide stem loss was not significantly related to salinity or elevation. Controlled salinity trials indicated that salt tolerance to levels above 40 mM NaCl was related to maternal origin. Salt sensitive plants from the Lower Keys had less stem growth, lower root:shoot ratios, lower potassium: sodium ratios and lower recovery rate, but higher δ 13C than a salt tolerant lineage of unknown origin. Unraveling the genetic structure of salt tolerant and salt sensitive lineages in the Florida Keys will require further genetic tests. Worldwide rare species restricted to fragmented, low-elevation island habitats, with little or no connection to higher ground will face challenges from climate change-related factors. These great conservation challenges will require traditional conservation actions and possibly managed relocation that must be informed by studies such as these.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)