Research Press Release

Climate change: Animal adaptations not keeping pace with climate change

Nature Communications

July 24, 2019

The climate is changing at a pace that leaves some animal species unable to adapt quickly enough, finds a meta-analysis published in Nature Communications this week. Although some species have been advancing their seasonal life cycles in response to rising temperatures, the results suggest that these adaptive changes may not be taking place at a rate that would guarantee the long-term persistence of some populations. Populations of European roe deer, song sparrow, common murre and Eurasian magpie were among those at risk.

Climate change has meant that species’ historical phenology (the timing of life cycle events such as breeding and migration) is mismatched to current climate. Species can potentially respond by altering their phenology, but only if there is sufficient genetic variation or plasticity in their behaviour and development.

Viktoriia Radchuk and colleagues reviewed 10,090 scientific abstracts and extracted data from 71 published studies (representing 17 species in 13 countries) to assess animal responses to climate change, focusing particularly on birds. They find that phenological changes tend to be adaptive to climate change, shifting in the direction favoured by global warming. In contrast, they did not detect consistent shifts in animal morphology in response to climate change.

The authors observed that phenological shifts may alleviate some of the detrimental effects of climate change. However, they find that phenological changes are lagging behind climate changes and calculate that many populations may be lagging too far behind climate change, threatening their continued persistence.

doi:10.1038/s41467-019-10924-4

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