Climate change has made our beautiful balance planet into chaos. While oceans and forests are changing and ecosystems are in shock, perhaps a million species are on the brink of extinction. But there may still be hope for these organisms. Some will change their behavior in response to rising global temperatures. For example, they could multiply earlier in the year when it is cooler. Others can even evolve to cope with it ̵
At the moment, however, scientists do not know how these adjustments might affect them. A new article in Nature Communications co-authored by more than 60 researchers, seeks to provide a degree of clarity. By searching 10,000 previous studies, the researchers found that the climate we've sown may be just too intense [Editor’s note: The researchers scanned 10,000 abstracts, but their analysis is based on data from 58 studies]. Some species seem to adapt, but they do not do it fast enough. In a word, sinking.
To see how a species adapts to a crazy climate, you usually look at two things: morphology and phenology. The morphology refers to physiological changes, such as the aforementioned shrinkage effect; Phenology has to do with the timing of life events such as breeding and migration. Most of the existing research concerns phenology.
The species in the new study are bird's nesting birds, in large part because birds are relatively easy to observe. For example, researchers can set up nesting boxes where they can keep track of when adults lay eggs, when chicks hatch, how tall the chicks are, and so on. And they can understand how this all changes when the climate warms up.
The authors of the work Nature Communications stated that it appears to be the 17 bird species studied shifting their phenology. "Birds in the northern hemisphere show on average adaptive responses, but these are not enough to sustain the populations in the long term," says lead author Viktoriia Radchuk from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
In other words, the birds just can not keep up. By shedding their eggs earlier, they encourage their chicks to hatch when many insects are eaten, which happens when temperatures rise in the spring. They do not change fast enough.
This is not an exclusive phenomenon for man-made climate change. Life on Earth is so diverse because it is so adaptable: temperatures are rising or falling, and one species can move into a new habitat and evolve into something else over time. But what we have unleashed on this planet is unprecedented. "We are experiencing a 1000 times faster temperature change than paleo times," says Radchuk. "These adaptation responses are limited and the delay is too great."
That is, more than ever, we must aggressively conserve habitats to strengthen species. "I think the results of this paper are extremely precautionary. We should not hope that the species will adapt to the changing climate and changing habitats and that we do not have to do anything, "says Mark Reynolds, senior scientist of The Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Program, who was not involved in the study.
In fact, this paper offers a frightening insight into what could happen to ecosystems as a whole. A bird does not live in a vacuum – it hunts and is hunted. An ecosystem is incredibly complex, all kinds of creatures interact, making it extremely difficult to study this dynamics, especially when the Earth's climate is changing so fast.
"It's not an Internet network, it's not an electrical network," he says Peter Roopnarine, curator of geology and paleontology at the California Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in this work. "These are systems with very specific structures and configurations. We have a bad documentation about it.
When insects begin to hatch earlier in the year as the planet warms, birds must shift their life cycles. This also means that the predators of the birds do this. "A phenological change in a species can have a ripple effect through the system," says Roopnarine.
Another important aspect is the generation length. Species that produce faster offspring are better able to adapt to changes. That's why bacteria can so quickly develop resistance to antibiotics: they multiply like crazy, and individual bacteria with the happy genetics to survive the drugs gain and pass those genes on. Something like an elephant that may reproduce itself after only 20 years works with longer time scales and may have difficulty adapting to changes.
What is so disturbing about this study is that birds are relatively adaptable in their phenology compared to other animal families: they can, for example, adjust the timing of their migrations. A less mobile animal like a frog has no such luxury. However, these researchers have found that flexibility is no longer sufficient for rescue.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.