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Animal extinction risk is heavily influenced by climate change

Many of the animals we love, from playful penguins to majestic elephants, could disappear because of climate change. It’s not something just for scientists to worry about — it’s a real threat. 

A new study by Oxford University examined fossils of sea creatures to identify which animals are most at risk of extinction as the Earth’s climate keeps changing. 

Animal extinction patterns from the fossil record

The research team analyzed fossil records spanning a staggering 485 million years. They focused on creatures that lived in the ocean with hard shells, like sea urchins and clams. 

The experts looked at over a quarter of a million fossils from more than 9,200 different types of these creatures. They wanted to find out what makes some species more likely to survive than others. 

The researchers were interested in factors that hadn’t been considered before, like what temperature the creatures preferred to live in.

Species in extreme habitats are most vulnerable 

The results showed that the bigger the temperature fluctuations, the more danger species were in. This was especially true if the temperature changed more than 44.6°F (7°C) over a long period. The study suggests that rapid climate change disrupts the balance of nature, making it harder for species to survive.

The experts also found that animals living in very hot or cold places, like the poles, are in more danger from climate change. These areas experience bigger climate swings, making it even harder for species that are already used to harsh conditions. 

As climate change gets worse, extreme habitats change quickly, which is even more dangerous for the species that live there.

Important predictors of animal extinction 

“Our study revealed that geographic range was the strongest predictor of extinction risk for marine invertebrates, but that the magnitude of climate change is also an important predictor of extinction, which has implications for biodiversity today in the face of climate change,” explained lead author Cooper Malanoski from Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford.

Animals that can only survive in a very specific temperature range face the greatest risk of extinction. The study revealed that species in areas where the temperature only changed by 59°F (15°C) or less were much more likely to die out. 

This shows how dangerous climate change is for species that need a very specific environment to survive. Even small changes in temperature can lead to their population shrinking or them dying out completely.

Small animals face higher extinction risk

The size of an animal can affect its chances of surviving and reproducing. The researchers concluded that smaller animals are more likely to die out entirely. This isn’t new – scientists have known for a while that smaller creatures have a harder time dealing with changes in their environment.

There are a few reasons for this. First, small animals burn energy quickly compared to their size. They need more food to survive, so any changes that make food harder to find hurt them more.  

Also, small animals tend to live for a shorter time and have more babies quickly. While this can help their population grow fast, it can also make them more vulnerable to problems that reduce their numbers.

Another issue is that small animals often can’t travel far. This makes it hard for them to find new homes if their current one gets messed up, or to escape from danger. If their habitat becomes fragmented, or they get separated from each other, they’re more likely to die out completely.

Conservation in a changing climate

The study provides valuable insights for protecting wildlife in a warming world. Knowing which creatures are most at risk is crucial for planning conservation efforts as climate change worsens. 

By pinpointing the most vulnerable species, conservationists can focus their efforts and get the most out of limited resources, increasing the chances of preserving biodiversity despite environmental challenges.

The study emphasizes the importance of specific actions to lessen climate change’s harm on wildlife. This might involve restoring habitats, reintroducing species to areas they once lived in, or creating protected zones for safety. 

In some cases, more drastic measures may be needed, such as helping species move to new homes better suited to the changing climate.

Finally, the research highlights the need for collaboration between scientists, government officials, and conservation groups. By combining their expertise, they can develop creative solutions and implement evidence-based conservation plans that consider the specific needs of different species and ecosystems.

The study is published in the journal Science.


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