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Species just can't adapt fast enough for climate change


A file photo of a snow leopard in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. (Photo courtesy WWF)

Wildlife isn’t just facing extinction because of poachers’ bullets. It is also facing extinction because of rapid global warming.

Of course, many, many species have adapted to past climate fluctuations. The catch is, their rate of change is very slow, according to a study led by John Wiens at the University of Arizona.

The researchers used data from 540 living species, like amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and compared their rates of evolution with the rates of climate change projected for 2100 or so. The results were published in the journal Ecology Letters and they show that most land animals will not be able to evolve quickly enough to adapt to the warmer climate.

As a result, many species face extinction.

This is what Wiens told the Guardian.

“We found that, on average, species usually adapt to different climatic conditions at a rate of only by about 1C per million years. But if global temperatures are going to rise by about four degrees over the next 100 years as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that is where you get a huge difference in rates. What that suggests overall is that simply evolving to match these conditions may not be an option for many species.”

The study from the University of Arizona says there is just not enough time for these species to change or learn to adapt. For instance, by altering their bodies’ shapes so they hold less heat — to compensate for rising heat levels.

Species, like the snow leopard which live in the mountains, will likely have the hardest time surviving, the study says.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh


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