Animals ‘not able to adapt quickly enough to keep up with climate change’

Animals like roe deer and magpies are not able to adapt quickly enough to keep pace with the changing climate, scientists say.

Although some species respond to increasing temperatures, research suggests these adaptations may not be happening at a rate that guarantees the long-term persistence of some populations.

Populations of European roe deer, song sparrow, common murre and Eurasian magpie were among those at risk.

The meta-analysis published in Nature Communications suggests historical timing of species’ life cycle events (phenology) like migration and breeding is mismatched to current climate.

Scientists say animals can potentially respond by altering their phenology, 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.

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

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

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

Garden birds stock
A Great Tit on a bird feeder (Joe Giddens/PA)

However, senior author Alexandre Courtiol, also of Leibniz-IZW, said: “This is unlikely to be the case because even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence.”

The scientists 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.

“Adaptive responses among rare or endangered species remain to be analysed.

“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.

The researchers hope their analysis and the assembled datasets will stimulate research on the resilience of animal populations in the face of global change.

They further hope it will contribute to a better predictive framework to assist future conservation management actions.

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