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WILL CLIMATE CHANGE MAKE TROPICAL TREES MORE COLORFUL?

November 28, 2014

WILL CLIMATE CHANGE MAKE TROPICAL TREES MORE COLORFUL?

Young tropical trees often sport blue, red or purple leaves. This is due to high concentrations of anthocyanins, the same chemicals that give berries their bright colors

Young tropical trees often sport blue, red or purple leaves. This is due to high concentrations of anthocyanins, the same chemicals that give berries their bright colors. STRI scientist Enith Rojas studies these chemicals to learn how they defend trees against herbivory and fungal pathogens.

From the basket of the canopy crane in Panama’s Metropolitan Park, Rojas plucks young forest canopy leaves. She takes the leaves to STRI’s laboratories in Gamboa, where she pairs anthocyanin extracts from leaves with fungal pathogens on agar plates.

“We’ve found that the amount of anthocyanin affects the infection and the growth of fungus in general,” said Rojas, the Panama City skyline in the background as she collects leaves some 40 meters above the forest floor. Her findings could increase understanding of what drives plant biodiversity in tropical forests and be applied to predict when crops will be vulnerable to disease.

After 18 years of studying the microbial world of tropical plants, Enith still has many questions. Many species of leaf-dwelling fungus have yet to be discovered. Rojas also wants to know why some trees are more susceptible to herbivory than others.

One thing she and colleagues have discovered is that young leaves exposed to intense sunlight have more anthocyanin than leaves of the same species in the understory. This leads Rojas to wonder about how climate change — if it leads to increased sun exposure of tropical forests — could alter the look of the forest. “…will the plants tend to be more colorful and produce more anthocyanin?” she asks.

Enith Rojas | Photo by Sean Mattson - STRI

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