A vast botanical study comparing 75 different ecosystems across the planet is revealing a wealth of surprising new facts about the secret lives of plants and what eats them - and some important lessons about how they will fare with climate change.
The brainchild of a UNSW evolutionary biologist, Dr Angela Moles, who personally visited every one of those ecosystems over a two-year odyssey across the planet, the results of the World Herbivory Project are still being analysed.
But the landmark study is already yielding some fundamental insights and previously unknown patterns in the way plants vary between warmer and cooler parts of the world.
Dr Moles's outstanding research project has been recognised publicly with a $20,000 award as one of four 2008 L'Oreal Australia For Women in Science Fellowships.
Among the early findings by Dr Moles and a colleague, Dr Will Edwards of James Cook University, is that most vines are left-handed: that is, they twist anti-clockwise irrespective of whether they grow north or south of the equator.
After comparing the seeds of almost 13,000 plant species, Dr Moles has also discovered that seeds in the tropics are, on average, 300 times bigger than seeds in colder places, such as the northern conifer forests. She has also assembled a database of the relative heights of about 22,000 species.
She has also found that in the tropics plants have to cope with being eaten more often by animals than do those further north or south in latitude.
Her findings have important implications for understanding how plants and the animals that depend on them will be affected by climate change.
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