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How are squirrels adapting to climate change?

As the Earth’s climate continues to change, many species are expected to adapt by changing their habitat and behavior. However, a recent study conducted in California’s high-elevation Sierra Nevada by researchers at UC Davis suggests that climate change is only one of several factors to consider when predicting where a species will make its home in a changing world.

Published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, the study focused on three species of squirrel, including the yellow-bellied marmot, Belding’s ground squirrel, and the golden-mantled ground squirrel, and analyzed nearly 6,000 observations of individual squirrels collected over four years.

To better understand the niche of these animals, which includes all the environmental conditions necessary for an animal to live in a particular area, the researchers looked beyond just climate conditions, incorporating topography and land cover into their analysis. 

“We’re trying from a conservation perspective to understand what will happen to these species as the world changes,” said lead author Aviva Rossi, who conducted the study while a UC Davis graduate student in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. “A quantitative analysis of what makes a species able to live where it lives allows us to bring that information forward, and better understand differences between species.”

The experts found that non-climatic factors such as topography, including the steepness of an area, and land cover, such as meadows or forests, also play an essential role in determining where a species can thrive. For example, a species that is adapted to living on steep, rocky slopes may not be able to survive in flatter areas with different land cover, even if the climate is suitable.

These findings have important implications for predicting which species will be most vulnerable to climate change. Understanding the niche of animals helps scientists learn which changes are expected to most impact a species and, therefore, which animals may be most vulnerable to climate change.

The researchers found that these three species of squirrels use the same space differently because their niche is different. 

While grassland meadows were particularly important for both the yellow-bellied marmot and Belding’s ground squirrel, they each preferred slightly different conditions within the meadow. Marmots preferred drier conditions, while Belding’s ground squirrels favored wet vegetation. On the other hand, golden-mantled squirrels preferred forested areas and did well with more snow-free days. Belding’s ground squirrels, however, preferred having snow on the ground longer.

Rossi emphasized that even with these overall selection patterns, there can still be too much of a good thing in extreme years. Mammals in high-elevation mountains are often perceived as vulnerable to climate shifts, yet the results underscore the importance of including factors that go beyond climate when defining their niche.

“There’s hope in some areas and not in others,” Rossi said. “If one species is there because of a meadow and another is there because of an outcropping of rocks, as the world changes, it may change where one species lives but not the other. We just want to better understand what’s likely to happen so we can make better conservation decisions.”

Study co-author Robert Klinger of the U.S. Geological Survey added that the research demonstrates the complexity of the impact of climate change. 

The findings have important implications for conservation efforts in the region, highlighting the need to consider ecological niches beyond just climate when developing strategies for managing these species. 

While the study was focused on squirrels in California’s Sierra Nevada, the findings could have broader implications for predicting how other species will respond to climate change. By considering a broader range of environmental factors beyond just climate, researchers may be better able to predict which species are most at risk and develop strategies to protect them.

The study was funded through the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, with support from the Gulch Environmental Foundation.

How other species are adapting to climate change

One of the most visible ways that species are adapting to climate change is by shifting their ranges. As temperatures rise, many species are moving to areas that were previously too cold for them. For example, some butterfly species in the United Kingdom have expanded their ranges northward by over 200 miles in the last few decades. Similarly, some bird species are migrating earlier or later in the year to take advantage of changes in the timing of food availability.

Another way that species are adapting to climate change is by changing their behavior. For example, some animals are altering their breeding seasons to match changes in the timing of food availability. Some species are also changing their feeding habits. For example, some seabirds have started eating more squid and less fish as the ocean temperatures warm and the availability of different prey changes.

In addition to changing their ranges and behavior, some species are evolving in response to climate change. For example, some plants are evolving to have shorter lifecycles, which allows them to reproduce before the growing season ends. Some species are also evolving to have smaller body sizes, which helps them to regulate their body temperature more effectively in warmer conditions.

Finally, some species are adapting to climate change through human intervention. For example, some conservationists are creating “corridors” of suitable habitat between areas of protected land. These corridors allow species to move between different areas as their ranges shift. Other conservationists are also using assisted migration, which involves moving species to new areas where they are better suited to the changing climate.

In summary, climate change is a significant threat to many species around the world, but it is also true that some species are adapting to the changing climate. From shifting their ranges and behavior to evolving and benefiting from human intervention, these species are demonstrating the resilience and adaptability that is essential for survival in an ever-changing world. 

However, it is important to note that not all species have the capacity to adapt as quickly or effectively, and it is therefore critical that we continue to take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change and protect the diversity of life on Earth.


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