From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published August 21, 2012 12:12 PM

Species Adapting to Climate Change is more complicated than thought

With climate change happening, species will be forced to adapt or to move out of the habitats they are accustomed to. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are trying to understand how these species will respond to changing environmental conditions and where they will go.

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One study published in the journal Global Change Biology finds that changes in precipitation have been overlooked as a factor in driving bird species out of their normal range. The second study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found a sharp decrease in range for the Belding's ground squirrel as it relies on human-modified areas for their new homes.

"Our results redefine the fundamental model of how species should respond to future climate change," said Morgan Tingley, the study's lead author. "We find that precipitation changes can have a major, opposing influence to temperature in a species' range shift. Climate change may actually be tearing communities of organisms apart."

The researchers found that while rising temperatures tended to push birds to cooler regions upslope, increased precipitation, which is more common at higher elevations, pulled them downslope.

"Moving is a sign of adaptation, which is good from a conservation standpoint," said Tingley. "More worrisome are the species that have not shifted. How are they adapting? Are they moving, but we just can't detect it? Or are they slowly declining as environmental conditions gradually become less ideal where they live?"

Concerning UC Berkley's second study, researchers revealed that the Belding's ground squirrel had disappeared from 42 percent of the sites where they were recorded in the early 1900s. Extinctions were particularly common at sites with high average winter temperatures and large increases in precipitation.

Although the Belding's ground squirrel is widespread, the rapid decline in its distribution is of concern because it is an important source of food for raptors and carnivores. However, the paper suggests that even when climate change causes large range declines, some species can persist in human-modified areas.

So while some bird species are relocating to drier areas and the Belding's ground squirrel is moving to human oases, we can expect other species will also have to adapt or relocate. However predicting a species' response to future climate change will be challenging because of the complexities of their ecological needs and their response to human-modified habitats.

Read more at UC Berkeley

Belding's ground squirrel image via Toni Lyn Morelli, UC Berkeley.

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