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Climate Change and Habitat Loss: How Animals Adapt [INTERVIEW]

Jun 15, 2015 12:12 PM EDT
painted bunting
Painted bunting (Passerina ciris)
(Photo : Dan Pancamo/Wikimedia Commons)

Climate change and habitat loss are two major threats posed to animal species worldwide. And especially with global temperatures rising in recent decades (2014 was the hottest year yet), scientists are now concerned more than ever with the survival of Earth's animals. However, recent research suggests that they are more flexible than you thinnk.

Nature World News (NWN) recently spoke with biologist Jeffrey Kelly, of the University of Oklahoma, who found that airborne species - such as birds, bats and insects - have learned some ways to adapt.

"In particular what we're really interested in is broad scale patterns of phenology - so the timing of seasonal events and what [that] can tell us about how our planet's changing, and particularly how these migratory organisms are responding to those changes," Kelly, with the Oklahoma Biological Survey, told NWN.

Kelly and his colleagues focused on tracking bird species such as the painted bunting and the purple martin, and also used existing radar data to measure on a broad scale the timing of seasonal events. This way, they could get a better understanding how those events change over time and space, and thus impact the behavior and movements of these animals.

Though their study did not provide specific examples from their own tracked birds, the general belief among scientists is that some bird species change their migration patterns - by moving to different places and at unusual times - to compensate for their changing environments. Specifically, some species have been seen arriving at their wintering ground earlier due to climate warming.

So what exactly tips these birds off that they need to get moving earlier and earlier?

"It looks like it is local food conditions," Kelly notes.

However, previous research shows that the same adaptability cannot be said of songbird species traveling over very large distances. Climate change may cause spring to arrive earlier and earlier, and yet these birds just cannot adjust - a problem referred to as trophic mismatch.

"The thinking is that these long-distance migrants are using day length as a cue in the spring as to when they should migrate because day length doesn't change from year to year," Kelly explained.

However, "that creates the obvious problem that if year after year spring is advancing in the Arctic and you're using day length as a cue to migrate, then you are going to miss the peak of spring because you're too late."

"You can think of these migrants as being already in the neighborhood," he continued, "and they can perhaps use the local conditions - let's say in Oklahoma or Texas - to tell them reasonably what it might be like in North Dakota or South Dakota. So they might be able to time their migration more to the local plant phenology. Whereas if you're a long-distance migrant - say you're in Africa or South America and you're going to the Arctic - the conditions where you are unlikely have anything to do with the conditions where you're headed. And so that's why the longer distance migrants rely more heavily on day length as a proxy for the beginning of migration, and possibly makes them more susceptible to these trophic mismatches."

But climate change doesn't just bring higher temperatures; it also will likely bring worse droughts - in some cases even megadroughts, like in the western United States, for example. This extreme weather has a negative impact on various animal species, such as bats.

Pictured: Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave in Texas.
(Photo : USFWS/Ann Froschauer) Pictured: Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave in Texas.

"Drought is very hard on bats. It impacts their ability to be reproductively successful. If they don't breed it has a hard impact on their population," researcher Winifred Frick, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told NWN.

When water is scarce, it affects the timing of when bats emerge from their caves to go out and forage. Not to mention that females, when they're lactating and nursing their young, are very dependent on water. And with the West, most notably California, experiencing drought more and more in recent years, the fear is that bat populations will suffer unless they learn to adapt.

"I think in general we have reasons to believe drought is hard on bat populations. Bats are dependent on insects, and to the extent that there is less water and less insects, there is going to be less food available," Frick added.

So in the face of climate change and habitat loss, what will the future look like for these and other animal species?

"I think we'll get new species in places they never were before. I think we'll lose species where they are now. Some of the species that are in trouble now might be gone," Kelly said. "But there might be other species in trouble that for whatever reason don't do as poorly in the future."

Only time will tell, but this and other research has shown that animals are for the most part resilient and can learn to adapt. Besides birds changing their migration patterns, pikas have taken to higher ground, tiny killifish have learned to survive in both freshwater and saltwater, and water fleas are even reproducing differently.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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