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News 2019

Climate change occurring faster than birds can adapt

24 Jul 2019
The study focused mainly on birds and included common European species such as the magpie (Pica pica), the great tit (Parus major) and European pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca).

Climate change is occurring so rapidly that many animals may be unable to adapt, according to findings of an international study published in Nature Communications.

An international team of researchers evaluated more than 10,000 published scientific studies, and found that while animals are adjusting to climate change, these responses appear insufficient to cope with future rapid warming. The study focused mainly on birds and included common European species such as the magpie (Pica pica), the great tit (Parus major) and European pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca).

“These are common birds that were previously thought adaptable to climate change, so this is quite worrying” stated the co-author of the study, Dr Thomas Reed, Senior Lecturer in Zoology at University College Cork (UCC).

In wildlife, the most commonly observed response to climate change is an alteration in the timing of biological events such as hibernation, reproduction or migration (phenological traits). Changes in body size, body mass or other morphological traits have also been associated with climate change, but – as confirmed by this study – show no systematic pattern. The researchers extracted relevant information from the scientific literature to relate changes in climate over the years to possible changes in phenological and morphological traits. Next, they evaluated whether observed trait changes were associated with higher survival or an increased number of offspring. 

“The findings are both good and bad”, continued Dr Reed. “On the one hand, the data show that many species are changing in ways that increase survival and reproductive success. But on the other, the models show that this may not be enough for populations to stay in the game long term, because the rate of adaptive change is too slow. The fear is that the prognosis for species of conservation concern, for which we had little data, could be even worse”.

The scientists hope that their analysis and the assembled data sets will stimulate research on the resilience of animal populations in the face of global change and contribute to a better predictive framework to assist future conservation management actions.

Dr Reed co-authored this research with Professor Steven Beissinger, University of California in Berkeley and Prof. Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, Dr Viktoriia Radchuk and Dr Alexandre Courtiol, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. The entire research team was composed of 64 international researchers.

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