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Animals struggling to adapt to climate change, scientists warn

Image credit: Rademakerfotografie | Dreamstime.com

Animals such as roe deer and magpies are unable to adapt quickly enough to keep pace with the changing climate, scientists have discovered.

According to research conducted by experts from the US and Germany, although some species respond to increasing temperatures, these adaptations may not be happening at a rate that guarantees the long-term persistence of some populations.

The study, published in Nature Communications, identified that populations of European roe deer, song sparrow, common murre and Eurasian magpie were among those at risk.

The meta-analysis also suggests historical timing of species’ life-cycle events, such as migration and breeding, is mismatched to the current climate.

Scientists say animals can potentially respond to these life cycles – coinciding with the change in climate – by altering their phenology (biological events that depend on the climate), but only if there is enough genetic variation in their behaviour or development.

The team reviewed 10,090 scientific abstracts and extracted data from 71 published studies that represented 17 species in 13 countries, to assess animal responses to climate change, focusing particularly on birds.

“Our research focused on birds because complete data on other groups were scarce,” lead author Viktoriia Radchuk from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Germany said.

“We demonstrate that in temperate regions, the rising temperatures are associated with the shift of the timing of biological events to earlier dates.”

Steven Beissinger, professor at the University of California in Berkeley and co-author of the study, added: “This suggests that species could stay in their warming habitat, as long as they change fast enough to cope with climate change.”

The scientists, however, have said it was of greater concern that the data analysed included predominantly common and abundant species such as the great tit, the European pied flycatcher or the common magpie, which are known to cope with climate change relatively well.

“We fear that the forecasts of population persistence for such species of conservation concern will be even more pessimistic,” concluded Stephanie Kramer-Schadt of Leibniz-IZW.

Adaptive responses among rare or endangered species is yet to be analysed. But the researchers hope their analysis and the assembled datasets will stimulate research on the resilience of animal populations in the face of climate change.

According to researchers from University of Zurich (UZH), who investigated the effects of a marine heatwave in Shark Bay, Western Australia against the population of iconic Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in the area, climate change may have more far-reaching consequences for the conservation of marine mammals than previously thought.

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