Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, Basque Country, Spain
Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank partnership with Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi (Basque Country) is helping to conserve endemic and threatened species in the Pyrenees and Cantabrian Region in the North of Spain across three bio-geographical regions (Atlantic, Alpine and Mediterranean).
Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi’s staff collecting seeds on Lakora mountain in the West Pyrennes (Photo: Garmendia, J.)
Flora diversity in the Cantabrian region and Pyrenees
The plant diversity of the Pyrenees is one of the highest in Europe (5,500 species) and the Cantabrian territory also has outstanding plant diversity (3,590 species). In both cases, this high diversity is due to the complexity of these mountain ranges with a high altitudinal gradient and a wide diversity of climates, geology and ecosystems.
Around 200 taxa are endemic to the Pyrenees and 400 taxa are endemic to the Pyrenees-Cantabrian territory. Several boreoalpine and alpine species are at their southern distribution limit here and some species have isolated populations. In the Cantabrian territory-Pyrenees there are several threatened habitats at European level and several species of the alpine mountain zones, adapted to cold weather, are being replaced by plant species from lower mountain zones due to the global warming process.
Securing seeds for the future in the Cantabrian region and Pyrenees
Biodiversity scenarios for the 21st century predict a significant reduction of mountain habitats and the loss of many high mountain plants due to climate change and the impact of human activity. Every one degree rise in temperature could mean the loss of 10% of plant species, and habitats such as mountains and islands may be at great risk. On top of this, some factors like mining, ski resorts and land use changes are having a negative impact on the biodiversity of mountain areas.
The Cantabrian territory and Pyrenees are areas of high plant diversity and in particular of endemic plant life (plants only present within the Cantabrian territory, Pyrenees and neighbouring mountains) that are likely to be affected by this scenario. Studies suggest that climate change could directly threaten the biodiversity of the Cantabrian region and Pyrenees, and reduce vascular plant life by one third or even half (due to disappearance or drastic reduction of habitat).
Given this evidence, collecting and banking high quality seed collections of mountain plant species is an effective tool for ensuring the long term conservation of wide genetic diversity, providing propagation material to re-establish wild plant population and enabling habitat restoration.
The Pyrenees and Cantabrian territory are subject to radical transformation associated with climate change, such as:
- melting glaciers
- decreasing snow cover
- the retreat of plant species to high altitudes
- phenological variation in plant life
- the advance of harvest dates
This is also associated with human activities such as mining, urban expansion, sport activities, changes in land use, monoculture of exotic tree species, for example. In addition, mountain areas are particularly sensitive to climate change (IPCC, 2007) and give an insight into how climate change could affect other regions.
Plant populations are expected to shift to higher altitudes in response to warming. In fact, all over Europe all high mountain species have experienced an altitude increase of 2.7 meters in just seven years, and heat-loving plants (thermophite plants) are overtaking alpine species that are more adapted to cold. It is also important to bear in mind that temperatures are rising faster in mountainous regions, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Ecosystems have an intrinsic ability to adapt, which on many occasions involves moving in search of ideal conditions. However, with high mountain flora this possibility is restricted due to the altitude of Pyrenees and Cantabrian territory, and the fact that the colonisable surface is limited. As plants cannot 'climb' any longer because they have reached the top of the mountain this would cause the extinction of those native plants adapted to the cold, such as:
- the dwarf willow Salix pyrenaica
- Androsace ciliata
- Androsace cantabrica
- Saxifraga pubescens subsp. iratiana
- Leuzea cynaroides
- Gentiana burseri
- Crepis pyrenaica
- Ranunculus pyrenaeus
- Geranium cinereum
This will also affect a group of alpine and boreal plants species for whom this area is their southern border of distribution and that are refugees in shaded high areas of the mountains, such as:
- Kobresia myosuroides
- Carex capillaris
- Silene suecica
- Vaccinium gauteroides
- Empetrum nigrum
These changes will also have negative effects on some species of fauna that depend directly on plants and ecosystems, like bumblebees in the Cantabrian territory.
Plants have a pivotal role in maintaining life on Earth and don’t always get the attention they deserve. Plants are where carbon, nutrients and energy enter ecosystems and provide both physical habitat and the living and dead material that supports the animal food chain.
For all these reasons it is important
- to gather genetic material for conservation in seed banks of the plants that are most vulnerable to global warming as a preventive conservation measure
- to keep monitoring their conservation status
- to research their germination and cultivation requirements, in order to be ready if we need to use them for restoration
Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi
The Banco Vasco de Germoplasma Vegetal/Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi has been a Millennium Seed Bank partner since June 2013 and is a key partner for the ex situ conservation of the Pyrenees flora. It is located in a strategic position between the eastern border of the Cantabrian territory and the western part of the Pyrenees in the Basque country (Donostia).
The Department of Botany has been working in conservation since 1980 and has been managing the BVGV since 2007. The Department of Botany has in-depth knowledge of the vegetation and flora of the Basque Country and West Pyrenees and have exceptional experience in in situ and ex situ conservation. They have been collecting seeds for several years in the Basque Country and in the Pyrenees. There is a strong collaboration between Banco Vasco de Germoplasma Vegetal/Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi and the Jardín Botánico Atlántico.
Seed collecting trips
- In 2012 a joint field trip was made to Picos de Europa. (View the image gallery )
- In 2013 a joint field trip was made to the Pyrenees. To find more read the Pyrenees field trip post.
- Jardín Botánico Atlántico
- Banco Vasco de Germoplasma Vegetal/Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi
- Northern Spain Endemic Flora
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