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Keeping up with climate change: animals are falling behind


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Animals’ adaptations in response to climate change are “most likely insufficient”, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.

Otherworldly landscape in the eastern California desert - Trona Pinnacles National Monument

Image Credit: mlhradio via Flickr

As stated by the University of Leeds, it is of vital importance to assess whether animals can respond to changing environmental conditions. For example, do animals shift the time of breeding, and does this shift have a positive impact on a species’ long-term survival?

The paper’s research reviewed over 10,000 studies to assess whether animals are adapting to the changing environment. It found that while species do seem able to adapt to climate change, the rate at which temperatures are rising is too fast for them to keep up.

For example, though some of the bird species being studied were adapting to the climate, they were not doing so at a pace guaranteeing their survival. Such birds included the great tit and the magpie, which are known to cope with climate change relatively well. This is particularly worrying considering how common and abundant they are.

belfast magpie

Image Credit: Ross via Wikimedia Commons

Climate change has already affected multiple species. For example, the male cheetah’s testosterone levels and sperm count is falling, affecting their ability to reproduce. Furthermore, green turtles’ sensitivity to temperature means that a baby turtle’s gender is determined by how warm the sand is in which the eggs are laid – the warmer areas produce female turtles. Because of this, global warming has effectively led to a gender imbalance in the species.  

According to the study, while morphological traits such as changes in body size have been associated with climate change, they do not follow a systematic pattern. More commonly observed changes were shifting timings of biological events, while phenological traits such as migration and reproduction were shown to have altered in response to the changing climate.

University of Leeds’ Dr Christopher Hassall, who co-authored the study, said: “A great deal of environmental damage has been carried out under the assumption that the planet is able to absorb substantial amounts of human activity.

“This study is among the first to explore the limits of what nature can cope with in the long term and the picture is not very positive.”

This inability to adapt rapidly does not only have negative effects on the species themselves, but also on the ecosystem in which they exist. The potential loss of biodiversity, if species continue to adapt too slowly, will threaten the functioning of the ecosystem. Dr Hassall went on to say, “Our results suggest that prolonged climate change is going to have serious negative consequences for many of the numerous species that are vital to the continuing function of the natural world”.

The scientists behind the study hope that the publishing of their article will prompt further research into the adaptation of animal populations and climate change, and will contribute to future conservational action.

Lead Image Credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikipedia

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