Study Reveals Inability of Various Species to Adapt to Climate Change

According to an international team of researchers, including a biologist from Iowa State University, climate change is surpassing the potential of birds and other species to adjust to their changing environment.

The study reported in the academic journal Science Communications has assessed over 10,000 reported scientific literature to deduce that animals are capable of responding to climate change, but in general, those responses do not enable them to face the fast rate of increasing temperatures.

The study was conducted by 64 scientists under the leadership of Viktoriia Radchuk, Alexandre Courtiol, and Stephanie Kramer-Schadt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany.

Scientists examined a large number of bird species such as the European pied flycatcher and the common magpie, which are recognized to have developed climate change adaptation. Fredric Janzen, professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology at ISU, provided data on turtles during research.

The big picture is that climate is already changing. We know this. We also know that lots of organisms are responding to changing climatic conditions. What we found out is that, while these species are adapting, it’s just not happening fast enough.

Fredric Janzen, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University

The researchers found meaningful data from the scientific literature that associated climate changes over the years with possible changes in the characteristic traits of the species examined in their study. Later, they determined whether the observed characteristic changes were associated with the intended findings, for example, more offspring or more survival rates.

Species react to climate change by changing the timing of significant biological mechanisms such as reproduction, hibernation, and migration. As part of the study, it was identified that such changes, known as phenological characteristics, took place mostly in temperate regions, where biological mechanisms were changed to earlier dates than in the past.

Species could also undergo changes in morphological characteristics, namely, mass and body size. However, the research could not identify a systematic pattern to show how climate change can have an impact on morphological characteristics.

A comparison of the rate of climate change responses observed in the scientific literature with a rate modeled to show how characteristics would have to change to accurately trace climate change was made by the researchers. This comparison revealed that populations that undergo adaptive change do not adapt quick enough to assure enduring stability.

Scientists from Janzen’s laboratory have investigated turtles on the Mississippi River for many decades. According to Janzen, his study has discovered the same general patterns in painted turtles as noted in the current study, but the lifetime enjoyed by the species can hide those trends.

Since painted turtles could exist for decades, their populations may appear to be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions induced by climate change. However, climate change could decrease the turtle populations, thereby threatening their survival.

Individual turtles live such a long time, it’s possible we’ll have populations that will be functionally extinct but won’t be able to produce sufficient offspring to replenish themselves in the long term.

Fredric Janzen, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University


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