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Case study: How African antelopes are responding to rising temperatures

As the relentless heat of climate change grips our world, southern Africa and the African antelopes and other African mammals living in that habitat find themselves in the crosshairs of an alarming temperature rise.

The rising thermometer jeopardizes the region’s wild inhabitants, like antelopes, particularly those reliant on its already parched and fragile ecosystems. Their struggle for sustenance and water heightens, and their resilience to escalating heat diminishes.

A group of determined scientists has turned its attention to this issue, with a particular focus on how various antelope species, who share territories in Namibia, are grappling with the rising heat. Their aim is to comprehend how creatures of different sizes and habits are developing their defenses against the searing heat.

Paul Berry, a key researcher from the University of Potsdam and the lead author of this study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, cautioned, “Even the indigenous wildlife, adapted to hot and arid conditions, shows sensitivity to extreme heat. We need to consider the possibility that additional anthropogenic influences such as habitat fragmentation may compound the effect of rising temperatures.”

Animals like antelopes are altering their behavior to survive

To survive blistering temperatures, animals have an array of strategies at their disposal. They might genetically evolve, migrate, or even alter their behavior. Of these, behavioral modifications are the most flexible and immediate.

These can include seeking cooler spaces within their territories, adjusting their posture or activities, panting, or decreasing food intake. However, each adaptation carries a physical toll, and understanding this complex balancing act necessitates deeper investigation into how each species employs these adaptations.

How the antelope study was conducted

In this study, the team scrutinized the springbok, kudu, and eland antelope species. Springboks, the smallest of the trio, favor open terrains and exhibit high mobility. Kudus, medium-sized creatures, lean towards woodland areas and travel less. Elands, the largest, exhibit mobility like springboks and can live independently of water if their food carries enough moisture.

Equipping adult animals from each species with collar-fitted accelerometers, the team monitored their movements during the hottest periods between 2019 and 2021. They then correlated this data with the local weather station records and heat maps of the different species’ habitats.

What the researchers discovered about African antelopes

The findings revealed that springboks suffered the most from the rising heat. Their activity levels dwindled, with less movement during the day and no compensatory increase in nighttime activity.

Elands, on the other hand, successfully transitioned their activities from daytime to nighttime. Their impact was less, possibly due to their avoidance of the open, sun-exposed areas that springboks tend to inhabit.

Kudus, shade-dwellers and less mobile than the others, exhibited minimal changes in activity. Their larger size, coupled with the decreased predation risk and a greater capacity to withstand heat increases before experiencing thermal stress, likely contributed to their resilience.

“While we showed how antelope differ in their response to extreme heat, it would be insightful to know also how they change their behavior,” Berry remarked, revealing plans to use machine learning models to classify behaviors, such as feeding, resting, and movement, based on data gathered through direct observation.

Scientists are planning more studies

The research team postulates that other animals’ heat response mechanisms might also be influenced by factors like body size and habitat preference. However, more studies are needed to confirm this.

The implications of non-lethal heat stress are not to be underestimated, as they can still negatively impact an animal population’s health and reproductive capabilities. This could lead to significant changes within the ecosystem and consequential impacts on the local environment.

Dr. Niels Blaum of the University of Potsdam, the senior author of the study, highlighted the broader importance of this research, saying, “Managing the land both in an economically viable and an ecologically sustainable way is a complex task with far-reaching implications for the social and economic welfare of the region’s inhabitants.

More about the impact of climate change on mammals

Climate change has far-reaching implications for mammals around the globe, and these impacts extend far beyond just shifts in temperature. From altering food chains to changing habitats, the ripple effects of a warming planet pose a multitude of threats to mammals.

Shifts in Distribution from Rising Temperatures

As temperatures rise, many mammal species are forced to move toward the poles or to higher altitudes in search of cooler climates. This shift can disrupt established territories, create competition for resources, and in some cases, drive species into areas where they are not adapted to survive.

Changes in Food Supply

Changes in climate can affect the timing and availability of food sources. For instance, warmer temperatures can cause plants to bloom earlier, disrupting the timing of food availability for herbivorous mammals. Similarly, if the insects or smaller mammals that carnivores rely on for food are affected by climate change, it could create a cascading impact up the food chain.

Alterations in Hibernation and Migration Patterns

Changes in seasonal patterns can disrupt the biological rhythms of mammals. Some species may emerge from hibernation before food sources are available, while others might delay migration due to warmer temperatures, putting them at risk when the food supply eventually diminishes.

Increased Disease and Parasite Threats

Warmer temperatures can increase the prevalence and spread of diseases and parasites that affect mammals. For example, ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are expanding their range due to milder winters.

Extreme Weather Events and Habitat Loss

More frequent and intense weather events, such as wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts, can destroy habitats and food sources, causing immediate danger and long-term stress on mammal populations. Rising sea levels, a result of melting polar ice, can also lead to the loss of coastal habitats.

Threat of Extinction from Rising Temperatures

For species already endangered or with small populations, the added stress of climate change can push them closer to extinction. A 2020 review published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” suggests that half of the world’s terrestrial mammals are at risk from climate change and may not have the ability to adapt quickly enough to survive.

To mitigate these effects, it is crucial to continue efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving and restoring natural habitats. Additionally, more research is needed to understand and anticipate how climate change will affect specific species and ecosystems, so that effective conservation strategies can be implemented.

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