/ Modified aug 2, 2016 8:16 a.m.

Drought May Hurt Female Trees More than Males: NAU Study

Male cottonwood, willow, juniper trees function better than females under stress.

Forest Dead pinyon trees, with smaller surviving one-seed juniper, in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.
Craig D. Allen, US Geological Survey

By Melissa Sevigny, Arizona Science Desk

Climate change could skew the sex ratios of plants, a Northern Arizona University study published Tuesday reports.

The study – published in the journal Nature Plants - looked at dioecious species, plants which have a distinct sex, male or female. Scientists reviewed 83 experiments that exposed them to warmer or drier conditions to simulate climate change.

Kevin Hultine of Northern Arizona University and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is the study's lead author. Hultine said male plants had higher rates of photosynthesis under stress.

“What that means is that those lower rates of photosynthesis in females are going to put them at greater and greater disadvantage, which we presume will lead to greater rates of mortality,” he said.

Hultine said skewed sex ratios will be especially problematic for “foundation species” in the Southwest, such as cottonwood, willow, juniper and box elder.

Those species reproduce slowly and likely won’t be able to adjust to the quickly warming climate in the region, the study said.

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