Can cacti 'escape' underground in high temperatures?

From the American Journal of Botany

How a certain species will potentially handle global warming

A "living rock" cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in a large container on the roof of the biology building of Occidental College, Los Angeles, in June 2008 after 8 days of high temperatures. This particular plants was embedded in sandy soil with surface rocks. Scale bar = 10 mm. Credit: Gretchen B. North, Occidental College, Los Angeles

 

In the scorching summer heat of the Chihuahuan Desert in southwest Texas, air temperatures can hover around 97°F (36°C) while at the surface of the soil temperatures can exceed 158°F (70°C). Encountering these extreme temperatures, plants must utilize creative methods to not only survive but thrive under these difficult and potentially lethal conditions.

This new work by Dr. Gretchen North and colleagues, published in the December issue of American Journal of Botany (http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/reprint/ajb.1000286v1), sheds light on how one desert resident, the cactus Ariocarpus fissuratus, copes with the effects of high temperatures.

“One crucial point is that small desert plants such as the ‘living rock’ cactus occupy one of the hottest habitats on earth, the surface of desert soils” stated North.

Ariocarpus fissuratus earned its nickname “living rock” because it blends into the rocky surroundings with its small stature that is level with the soil’s surface. The researchers hypothesized that the cactus could “escape” high temperatures by moving more of itself below the soil surface where it is cooler.

Measuring changes in plant depth and root anatomy, North and co-workers determined that the cactus moves deeper into the soil by contracting its roots. But does root contraction play a protective role by modulating temperatures?

To find out, the researchers mimicked summer desert conditions by growing plants on a rooftop in Los Angeles, where air temperature was above 99°F for several days. All the cacti were grown in sandy soil, but half had rocks covering the surface of the soil, similar to their native habitats. For plants grown in rocky soils, the internal temperature of the stem was about 39°F lower than those grown in sandy soils alone. While this may seem like a small decrease, it had a significant effect on the health of the plants.

Unlike the cacti grown in sandy soil which all died, those grown in rocky soil survived the intense heat. Root contraction aided in lowering the internal stem temperature, but only when combined with the cooling effects of the rocky surface. The opposite was true in sandy soil where cacti planted higher above the surface had slightly lower stem temperatures than those planted close to the surface.

“Even in rocky soil, experimental plants attained nearly lethal temperatures during a summer heat wave in Los Angeles” said North. “Thus, root contraction and rocky microhabitats may not provide enough protection should desert temperatures get much higher due to global warming.

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CITATION: Tadao Y. Garrett, Cam-Van Huynh, and Gretchen B. North (2010). Root contraction helps protect the “living rock” cactus Ariocarpus fissuratus from lethal high temperatures when growing in rocky soil. American Journal of Botany 97(12): 1951-1960. DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1000286

The full article in the link mentioned is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary at http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/reprint/ajb.1000286v1. After this date, reporters may contact Richard Hund at ajb@botany.org for a copy of the article.

The Botanical Society of America (www.botany.org) is a non-profit membership society with a mission to promote botany, the field of basic science dealing with the study and inquiry into the form, function, development, diversity, reproduction, evolution, and uses of plants and their interactions within the biosphere. It has published the American Journal of Botany (www.amjbot.org) for nearly 100 years. In 2009, the Special Libraries Association named the American Journal of Botany one of the Top 10 Most Influential Journals of the Century in the field of Biology and Medicine.

For further information, please contact the AJB staff at ajb@botany.org.

Caption: A “living rock” cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in a large container on the roof of the biology building of Occidental College, Los Angeles, in June 2008 after 8 days of high temperatures. This particular plants was embedded in sandy soil with surface rocks. Scale bar = 10 mm.

Credit: Gretchen B. North, Occidental College, Los Angeles

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38 thoughts on “Can cacti 'escape' underground in high temperatures?

  1. My only question to these researchers would be, have they got an anti freeze system built in for the rather severe cold that they are now enjoying?

  2. “39°F lower … this may seem like a small decrease …”
    Actually, no this doesn’t seem like a small decrease, this seems like a misprint.

  3. What a suprise that desert plants can survive the desert temperatures, and have been doing so for millions of years through higher temperatures than today. Isn’t evolution wonderful.

  4. I get it. We’re too dumb to adapt so the nanny state needs to act to prevent climate disruption and s-a-a-ave us all. Meanwhile, plants will do just fine.
    Wait… Now that I think about it, I have met a few people that would lose to the cactus if they were both on Jeopardy.

  5. Slightly OT but the Daily Mail are carrying a story that the rate in global warming is slowing down.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1333225/Global-warming-slowing-say-scientists.html
    The articles contains the usual assertions such as global warming is still happening, changes in the UK due to global warming are apparent and that the decade of the 2000s is still the warmest ever. Surprisingly there is no issue of questioning the instrument record (save that for asessing sea water temperature which so it is alleged may be under assessing the warming).

  6. For plants grown in rocky soils, the internal temperature of the stem was about 39°F lower than those grown in sandy soils alone. While this may seem like a small decrease. . .
    39 °F doesn’t seem that small to me.

  7. A rather interesting paper on the cactii’s methods to handle their environment but somewhat ruined by the last quotation “Thus, root contraction and rocky microhabitats may not provide enough protection should desert temperatures get much higher due to global warming.”
    The study is on temperatures and the reference to “global warming” seems almost an obligatory bow to political correctness.

  8. “Even in rocky soil, experimental plants attained nearly lethal temperatures during a summer heat wave in Los Angeles” said North. “Thus, root contraction and rocky microhabitats may not provide enough protection should desert temperatures get much higher due to global warming.”
    North’s conclusion is not made in the Garrett Et Al paper. They actually say:
    “As global temperatures increase, rocky microhabitats will become even more critical refuges for plants such as the living rock cactus that otherwise will
    be likely to experience lethal temperatures more frequently.”
    Obviously they weren’t going to get funding to study succulents without linkage to global warming, but I think we know where North comes from here.

  9. Dr Gretchen North and others: “Even in rocky soil, experimental plants attained nearly lethal temperatures during a summer heat wave in Los Angeles” said North. “Thus, root contraction and rocky microhabitats may not provide enough protection should desert temperatures get much higher due to global warming.”
    Baloney!
    I have just returned from a field trip to the middle of “The Great Sandy Desert” in Northwest Australia. This is the hottest time of year, and in an area bounded by the hottest towns in Australia. I finished up 290 km SE of Broome, 185 km SW of Fitzroy Crossing, 339 NE Telfer (a gold mining community) and 214 km SSE of Curtin Airbase and refugee camp, and East of one of Australia’s hottest towns, Marble Bar.
    I was particularly searching for evidence of stress to the flora following a long 18 month period of well above average temperatures, something I have done each year for 10years, while searching for plant species suitable for landscaping in ‘waterwise’ landscapes. I crossed about 80 large sand dunes and traversed areas of rocky and gravel outcrops, of which Louis Hissink could describe better than I can.
    Having to wind the vehicle windows up while traveling in the day time was necessary, to prevent hairs burning off my right arm, which was an inconvenience (I don’t have air conditioning).
    My biggest surprise was the impressive thriving plant community at this time of year, with many species flowering still and most others with a prolific seed stock. The difference from last year, which was just as hot, was stark, and showed that the above average rainfall over the ‘dry’ season had a far more beneficial effect on the environment, despite the searing heat.
    Desert species are conditioned to surviving in extremes of temperature and long periods of drought. They do not, however survive as easily in artificial landscapes such as parks and gardens, much to my disappointment, and I suspect that the paper above does not take this into account. Species found on the top of dunes, valleys, rocky outcrops all flourish in their natural habitat and there is no evidence that a few degrees hotter for a few years has made any difference to them.
    Fauna was evident in excellent condition and numbers throughout, including feral donkeys and camels. Many species of reptiles were seen, even at the hottest time of day, fleeing the oncoming vehicle.
    Temperatures here at this time of year are usually well above 40C in the shade for much of the day. I always travel barefoot out of the car in Broome and bush surrounds when it is 40C without a problem, but the desert sand was too hot for a few hours in the middle of the day. Indigenous people lived here for thousands of years until the 60’s and early 70,s.

  10. My first thought was that plants on rooftops may not do so well in the summer heat in LA. Hardly natural habitat.

  11. steveta_uk says:
    November 26, 2010 at 1:21 am
    “39°F lower … this may seem like a small decrease …”
    Actually, no this doesn’t seem like a small decrease, this seems like a misprint.
    My thought too.

  12. Before drawing conclusions the researchers have to verify results in situ. LA rooftops are not desert landscapes. Who knows what additional stresses were introduced by the experimental manipulation? The research is incomplete at this stage.

  13. Ah. Stevenson Screen habitat. This is an essential study as we gain more and more knowledge about this unique habitat. Several unique species have been discovered on these roof coverings.
    We should cheer these researchers for their contribution to the study of all Weather Station habitats, one of the least understand but fascinating habitats in the known world. I mean, it’s like the Last Frontier. What this group has done has allowed us to speculate on the behavior of Stevensonitipictus Screenpaintuswhitest now that we know what happens to Pleiospilos bolusii.
    So, if you thumb your nose at this study, well you just aren’t made of sciency stuff.

  14. okay I saw the headline and as a Canadian the first thing that came to mind was Ritchard Dean Anderson ( of MacGyver and Stargate fame) saying: (sarcastically)
    “DO YA THINK?”

  15. steveta_uk says:
    November 26, 2010 at 1:21 am
    “39°F lower … this may seem like a small decrease …”
    Actually, no this doesn’t seem like a small decrease, this seems like a misprint.

    Close, it’s an elementary mistake in converting from centigrade to Fahrenheit, the temperature difference was ~4ºC or 7ºF!

  16. I’m sorry I cant leave (not thorn) this alone…
    The do realize that there are cacti on the Canadian prairies (where I grew up and had to pick their thorns out of my tender parts) that grow with temp extremes from – 40C to +40C ?
    No I doubt they do, having never traveled outside the university universe.
    Here’s a hint: DEVILS COULEE , ALBERTA
    I hope they sit on one.
    [d]

  17. The researchers hypothesized that the cactus could “escape” high temperatures by moving more of itself below the soil surface where it is cooler.
    =========================================================
    And the researchers found out, not hypothesized, that the plants do it more in
    response to cold weather.
    Any time a plant does something like this, it stresses the plant.
    Doing it more in cold weather, and less in hot weather, does not fit into
    their doom and gloom/global warming hypothesis.
    They also found that these plants prefer to grow in areas where these “lethal” temperatures are common.
    Go figure…………………..

  18. Tom Harley says: November 26, 2010 at 3:37 am
    …Desert species are conditioned to surviving in extremes of temperature and long periods of drought. They do not, however survive as easily in artificial landscapes such as parks and gardens, much to my disappointment, and I suspect that the paper above does not take this into account.

    That was my first take as well. The paper is interesting in its look at the mechanism(s) of survival, but the synthetic setting certainly has an effect. I live in a high plains climate, and an extra bit of rain in the spring, or a late rain past the normal onset of the dry summer season has an enormous effect for the following 2-3 months.

  19. Way to anthropomorphize a plant!
    No, plants don’t use “creative” methods to do anything. At some point during the evolution of the plant the ones that had deeper roots survived to reproduce and the ones that did not, did not.
    But I suppose it’s more “creative” to express this concept as though plants are actively trying to hide from increasing heat. Sigh.

  20. Phil says “an elementary mistake” So it seems. Good Find!
    Tom Harley says “Baloney!” Fascinating comments. Thanks!
    H.R. says “. . . would lose to the cactus . . .” You get points for that.
    Pamela says “Weather Station habitats” Back in top form this morning!
    [ I put a comment on the cosmic ray post yesterday about italics.]
    ~~~~~~~ from the post . . .
    “ . . . likely to experience lethal temperatures more frequently.”
    That seems oddly worded.

  21. 5 years ago my neighbour fell for the drought/heat message here in the south of England. He replaced his lawn and rose bushes etc with tough desert type plants in a gravel bed. Needless to say they have been decimated by the wet and the cold.

  22. Neighbors have an ancient patch of Prickly Pear Cacti- imported to NE Oregon from:
    Grand Junction Colorado or Climate is similar, and it’s been there for oh, since the last PDO shift. hmm.

  23. So when the deserts are covered with solar farms what happens to the ecology? Oh stupid me, deserts are barren, nothing there.

  24. CodeTech says:
    November 26, 2010 at 8:47 am
    Way to anthropomorphize a plant!
    No, plants don’t use “creative” methods to do anything. At some point during the evolution of the plant the ones that had deeper roots survived to reproduce and the ones that did not, did not.
    But I suppose it’s more “creative” to express this concept as though plants are actively trying to hide from increasing heat. Sigh.

    I guess you missed the bit about “Contractile roots pulled plants of A. fissuratus into the soil at rates of 6 – 30 mm^yr”?

  25. I think the researchers were eating the cacti ( Ariocarpus fissuratus is mildly psychoactive).
    All of the members of this genus are very very slow growers, do not transplant all that well and have limited ranges. Growing the plants in containers on a rooftop in Los Angeles has no correlation to plants growing in real soil in their native habitat (which really is a micro habitat, i.e. they wont grow everywhere, but only in select locations within their range).

  26. Douglas DC says:
    November 26, 2010 at 9:06 am
    Neighbors have an ancient patch of Prickly Pear Cacti- imported to NE Oregon from:
    Grand Junction Colorado or Climate is similar, and it’s been there for oh, since the last PDO shift. hmm.
    ###
    Opuntia species are generally very adaptable, unlike most others. Many, would do just fine in NE Oregon, including O. polyacantha(sp.?) which is common in the Colorado Plateau. N.B. vegetative propagation is not the same as reproduction. One thing Opuntias do very well is vegetative propagation! I have seen massive stands of 100 year old plants in ridiculously unlikely locations.

  27. From a plant physiologist:
    The measurement of plant water use was flawed in that the individual containers holding the plants were measured en masse. This means that the claim of no difference in water relations between rocky top soils and sand top only soils is suspect. The rocky soils, with greater albedo and less surface pore space for diffusion of temperature gradient, likely evaporated less, leaving more water to be retained/transpired. These improved water relationships is more realistically associated with reduced stem temperature and increased survival. The plants may contract differentially in response to available water, but whether this is a response/cause to temperature cannot be determined from this experiment. Only an association. Therefore, it has nothing to do with warming temperatures.

  28. Phil. says:

    I guess you missed the bit about “Contractile roots pulled plants of A. fissuratus into the soil at rates of 6 – 30 mm^yr”?

    Fine. Then plants that had contractile roots that pulled them into the soil at rates of 6-30 mm/yr survived to reproduce, those that didn’t, did not.
    This isn’t “Little Shop of Horrors”, the plants are not going to start talking and/or strategizing their survival…

  29. Mike Haseler says:
    November 26, 2010 at 8:19 am
    That was a very interesting article … thought provoking … surprising about rocks being cooler … more please!
    ========
    the Permaculture books have sections on Aridland gardening.
    in Aus and elsewhere using rocks around the base of plants helps keep the soil cooler and enhances moisture retention, in winter the rocks warm up and help stop frost damage and keep a little warmth in the soils longer at night.
    soil temps too hot to walk on is common in aus, a 40 C day will sure burn your feet while trying to get to the water at the beach:-)
    or even walking round suburban dirt patches as I know, that why the national shoe is the thong! airflow and protection (aka chinese safety boots:-)

  30. Wonder if they would do that while fully hydrated but exposed to high heat. I think not. Life is filled with unintended side benefits of both good and bad events. Dehydrated roots (not a healthy thing to have happen) will contract because they have less water in the roots, everybody knows that. As a result, deeply rooted plants will sink a bit into the ground as the contraction pulls them downward. Some species may survive under these conditions, while others will dry up on the surface.
    My grandmother’s hens and chicks would do that, dry up on the surface. They would just be laying on top of the soil, with roots all dried up. But in the Spring rain and warmth, they would somehow rejuvenate and send roots down again.
    Hardy little buggers.

  31. Amicus, finally someone else who refers to those things as the real thong. That’s what we called them when I was a little girl. Nowadays, if you go to the department store looking for a pair of thongs, you are sent to the lingerie department.

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