Evolving For City Life

Urban environments pose unique challenges to any plant. Cities are generally warmer, have significantly higher CO2 levels, and experience altered levels of disturbance and precipitation patterns than do rural areas nearby. Still, many plants have taken to these concrete jungles, popping up wherever they can eke out an existence. Although we are not reinventing ecological principals in urban areas, they nonetheless present distinct selective pressures on every living thing within their jurisdiction. Evidence now suggests that urban environments are actually shaping the evolution of at least some plant species. 

Motivated by a desire to better understand how urban conditions are influencing evolution, a team of researchers based out of the University of Minnesota decided to take a closer look at a common mustard called Virginia pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum). This hardy little annual is at home wherever disturbance occurs. As such, it can be found throughout most of North America and beyond. Because it self pollinates readily, researchers were able to quantify phenotypic differences between populations growing in dense urban centers and compare them to those growing in more rural areas. They collected seeds from numerous urban and rural populations and grew them together in a greenhouse experiment. By exposing each population to the same conditions in the greenhouse, the team were able to tease out the true phenotypic differences between these populations. 

What their data revealed were distinct differences between urban and rural populations. For starters, urban plants had larger rosettes but fewer leaves. They also bolted sooner than rural plants but then exhibited a much longer period of time between bolting and flowers. Previous studies have shown that the inflorescence of related species "accounted for 55% of a plants photosynthetic activity but only 25% of water loss." Coupled with the reduction in the number of leaves, these results suggest that urban plants are maximizing photosynthesis under drier conditions. 

Another interesting difference is that urban plants produced far more seed than their rural counterparts. This very well may be due to the fact that urban plants tended to be larger. This could also be due to reduced herbivory in urban environments, though such pressures may vary from city to city. Due to the urban heat island effect, it is likely that this could be a result of more stable temperature conditions than those experienced by their rural counterparts.Taken together, these results show that there is indeed selection for traits that allow plants to survive in an urban environment.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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