, Volume 187, Issue 3, pp 839–849 | Cite as

Tolerance of subzero winter cold in kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata)

  • Heather A. Coiner
  • Katharine Hayhoe
  • Lewis H. Ziska
  • Jeff Van Dorn
  • Rowan F. Sage
Global change ecology – original research


The use of species distribution as a climate proxy for ecological forecasting is thought to be acceptable for invasive species. Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) is an important invasive whose northern distribution appears to be limited by winter survival; however, kudzu’s cold tolerance thresholds are uncertain. Here, we used biogeographic evidence to hypothesize that exposure to − 20 °C is lethal for kudzu and thus determines its northern distribution limit. We evaluated this hypothesis using survival tests and electrolyte leakage to determine relative conductivity, a measure of cell damage, on 14 populations from eastern North America. Relative conductivity above 36% was lethal. Temperatures causing this damage averaged − 19.6 °C for northern and − 14.4 °C for southern populations, indicating kudzu acclimates to winter cold. To assess this, we measured relative conductivity of above- and belowground stems, and roots collected throughout the winter at a kudzu population in southern Ontario, Canada. Consistent with acclimation, the cold tolerance threshold of aboveground stems at the coldest time of year was − 26 °C, while stems insulated from cold extremes survived to − 17 °C—colder than the survival limits indicated by kudzu’s biogeographic distribution. While these results do not rule out alternative cold limitations, they indicate kudzu can survive winters north of its current distribution. For kudzu, biogeography is not a proxy for climatic tolerance and continued northward migration is possible. Efforts to limit its spread are therefore prudent. These results demonstrate that physiological constraints inform predictions of climate-related changes in species distribution and should be considered where possible.


Freezing tolerance Global warming Invasive species Species distributions Thermal acclimation Climate equilibrium Niche shift 



We are grateful to Karen Castro and the many other people who helped us locate and compile kudzu sites, and to Jessamyn Manson, Patrick Friesen, Murilo Peixoto, Florian Busch, and Jerri Lee, who assisted with field work. This work was supported by a Discovery Grant from the National Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada to RFS, by an Invasive Species Centre Partnership Fund grant to RFS and HAC from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and by graduate fellowships to HAC from the Ontario Ministry of Education and the University of Toronto.

Author contribution statement

HC designed and performed the experiments and data analysis, KH and JVD analyzed the climate data, LZ and RS conceived of the study, and LZ assisted with the Maryland collections and experiments. HC and RS wrote the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

442_2018_4157_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (914 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 913 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Climate Science Center, Texas Tech UniversityLubbockUSA
  3. 3.ATMOS Research and ConsultingLubbockUSA
  4. 4.United States Department of AgricultureAgricultural Research Service, Adaptive Cropping Systems LaboratoryBeltsvilleUSA
  5. 5.Department of Pediatrics, Center for Better BeginningsUniversity of CaliforniaSan DiegoUSA

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