How Wildlife is Adapting to Climate Change
Posted on 02 Nov 2023
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” - Albert Einstein
Rising global temperatures are affecting many aspects of human life, and creating an increased sense of awareness of the impact of human activity on the environment. Those that pay a visit to the wonderful David Attenborough museum of zoology in Cambridge might notice a small, and relatively incongruous piece of information hidden away in the wonders that the museum offers - It states the human activity of Elephant poaching is impacting natural selection, with new-born elephants now having shorter that average tusks - meaning that they are more likely to avoid the attention of the poacher.
Unfortunately, this is not the only effect that human activity has on the natural animal world. A study has estimated that if carbon emissions are not reduced and continue on the same trajectory as before, global temperatures will rise by 4.5˚C, threatening up to half the animals and plants in some of the world’s most biodiverse areas. If temperature rise is limited within the Paris climate agreement goal of 2˚C, then there will still be vulnerable areas that face a dramatic reduction in species, including the Amazon and Galapagos Islands, that could still lose one quarter of their species.
Changing climate patterns that include increasing temperatures, changing precipitation levels and an increase in the variability of the weather cause animals to modify their key life stages, and force them to make adaptations in a short period of time that would normally have taken centuries.
Some animals who are struggling to adapt include:
The American Pika
This small animal, similar to a hamster, has reached the farthest extent of their habitable environment. Pikas require the cool moist conditions of the alpine Sierra Nevadas and Western Rockies, however the environment they need to survive is getting hotter, drier and less snowy. As they already live high in the mountains, when their terrain becomes inhabitable, there’s nowhere left for these beautiful little animals to go.
This wonderful insect uses the weather to tell them when to fly south from Canada to Mexico for the winter. Rising global temperatures have meant that this migration has been delayed by up to six weeks. When in Mexico, the early spring has also prompted them to make their return journey earlier.
This change in migration time has also corresponded with the reduction of local sources of food. Their milkweed habitat has reduced significantly due to drought, heat and herbicides, meaning that the Monarch's numbers have decreased by 95 percent in the last twenty years.
There are however other interdependent species who are adapting to their changing environment:
In Australia, some migrating birds are laying their eggs earlier to take advantage of the increased number of insects in the area.
Importantly, some species of Coral are adapting to climate change through a process known as phenotypic plasticity, which is distinct to the slower method of adaptation through natural selection.
This is the process where environmental factors cause genes to be switched on or off, through producing organic compounds that attach to DNA or modifying the proteins that DNA is wound around. The important aspect is that the DNA is not actually changed. The modifications can be passed through the generations, and also reversed if the prevailing environmental elements return to their former levels.
It is not known if all species are capable of phenotypic plasticity, though for those that can, it could give them sufficient time to evolve genetic adaptations to their new environment. Also, as with any physical trait, phenotypic plasticity could become more prevalent through natural selection, and its increased usefulness for adaptation to the new climate.
Researchers at the University of Montana studied patterns of coat color changes in eight species of hares, weasels and foxes. They found that coupled with the reduction in snowfall during winter months, the fur color change to white was also delayed. As this physical trait could not be affected by Phenotypic Plasticity, they realized that evolution was adapting the fur color to match the changing climate. To their surprise, the researchers found that evolution was working far faster than previously thought.
How OpenWeather can help
Understanding the environment, and how wildlife interact with their surroundings is one element in safeguarding their future. For example, creating safe corridors for animals to cross busy roadways such as in rural Norfolk, where a pedestrian bridge has been repurposed to help amphibians cross a major road safely. This not only protects them for immediate danger, but also gives them time to evolve resilience to increasing temperatures and dry weather.
With OpenWeather products, local governments and environmental agencies can understand the long term changes in weather patterns for specific geographic areas. Working with wildlife experts, measures can be taken to protect endangered species, and take achievable actions to ensure biodiversity in a certain area.
The OpenWeather History Collection offers 43+ years of historical data, with rich, multi-parameter data available for any location. This includes historical actuals and historical forecasts (previous forecasts). Data can be requested via APIs, via Bulk Download or via any custom delivery channel.
In addition, the OpenWeather Fire Weather Index product, is designed to help users estimate current and forecast fire danger, and reduce the risk of the incredibly damaging effect of this increasingly common phenomenon.
In addition, OpenWeather are helping the WWF secure the future of the dwindling wild tiger population by adopting one of these magnificent animals. Over the last 150 years, the tigers' population has shrunk by nearly 95%, with only an estimated 3,900 tigers left in the wild today. Hopefully, with joint human efforts and protection, the number of tigers will grow again.
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