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Animal communities are being reshuffled by climate change

Decades of climate change has caused species to shift between the better and worse parts of their climatic niches, especially in higher altitudes. 

Climate change is occurring at unprecedented rates, particularly in northern regions, threatening biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. A new study led by researchers of the University of Helsinki reveals just how large the impacts of climate change have been. 

The study is the first to combine long-term data for various groups of species in an effort to evaluate overall biodiversity change in Finland. By combining data from different sources on such a large number of species, the researchers were able to reveal the extent and causes of change.

Over the past four decades, the world’s climate has drastically changed, leading to impacts such as increasing temperatures and shorter duration of snow cover. The study results show that in Finland, climate change has resulted in northward ecosystem shifts. 

For example, conditions in the middle of Finland resemble past conditions in the south, while the north has inherited the climate of the mid-country. These changes, which are particularly pronounced in the far North, have a direct impact on biodiversity.

Many species have shifted between the “good,” “ideal” and “worse” parts of their climatic niches. Some species have benefited from a warming climate, while others cannot withstand hotter temperatures. As climate change progresses, conditions are turning more or less advantageous for individual species.

“Our results reveal a clear signal of more species responses towards the pole, where changes in climate have also been stronger,” said study co-lead author Laura Antão. “We also showed that the importance of temperature and snow duration varied between the different groups of species.”

The researchers are concerned about the future integrity of these ecosystems. “If species which depend on one another respond in different directions, or to different variables, then this can affect entire communities and ecosystems,” said study co-lead author Benjamin Weigel.

The research provides important insight into the effects of climate change on biodiversity. “In our study, community changes were mainly driven by species being favored or disfavored by the changes in climate, and thereby occurring more or less frequently in local species combinations. This seems to be another key effect of fast climate change – that now needs to be accounted for,” explained study senior author Anna-Liisa Laine.

The research is the first output of a unique collaboration between the Research Centre for Ecological Change (REC), University of Helsinki, and other key national institutes, namely the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and the Finnish Museum of Natural History (LUOMUS). 

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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