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Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity 2022

“Investigating the Effects of Winter Climate Change: Measuring Cold Tolerance Levels of Germinating Prairie Plant Species”

Mackenzie Seymour

Senior, Biomedical Science


Wisconsin native prairies are diverse, herbaceous-dominated ecosystems that are important for carbon storage and biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, most of the prairie in Wisconsin has been lost due to agriculture or urban expansion, so maintaining the remaining prairies is essential for preserving regional biodiversity. Also, climate is changing faster during winter than any other season in Wisconsin. As winter temperatures warm and become more variable the frequency of extreme hot and cold events increases. Understanding native prairie species’ cold tolerance is essential to understanding the plants’ ability to withstand changing environmental conditions. Our research focuses on measuring seed cold tolerance of 12 species by monitoring germination success after exposing seeds to varying cold temperatures. Overall, seed germination varied by species, ranging from 65% to 7% germination success. Cold tolerance also varied among species. For example, Illinois tick trefoil and great blue lobelia did not have reduced germination following the freeze trials, while germination of mountain mint decreased with colder temperatures. This suggests that more cold tolerant species might have higher survival rates following future extreme freeze events, while species that are sensitive to colder temperatures may have a decreased chance of survival. These results provide a deeper insight into how native prairie species withstand changes in winter climate, which could improve strategic methods for maintaining biodiversity in prairies. As the environment continues changing, knowing the stress-tolerance of different species can help us understand which species may cope fine with impending change and which species require more time and energy to conserve.

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  1. Jon Henn

    Very cool project, great work! Your cold trial results made me wonder whether you think seed size might have an influence on sensitivity to freezing? Maybe the smaller seeds can freeze more easily because they have less mass and thus lose heat faster? Do you think there might be evidence of that in your data?

    • Mackenzie Seymour

      That is a great question! From looking at the data, there does seem to be a pattern in which the bigger seeds (Asclepias syriaca and Desmodium illinoense) germinate more at the colder temperatures compared to the smallest seeds (Pycnanthemum virginianum and Corydalis sempervims). This may suggest that because smaller seeds have less mass and therefore more easily freezed, their germination rates are negatively impacted. This is something that we may have to take into consideration with future research and comparing/contrasting data. This also opens up a new avenue into investigating how seed germination in relation to seed size is impacted by varying extreme cold temperatures as a result of climate change, and it may be essential to investigate strategic methods on how to preserve native prairies by keeping seed size in mind. Thank you so much for your question and feedback!


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