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07-07-2024

Most species are shifting their habitats due to climate change

Ever noticed how birds fly south for the winter, or how your favorite sushi fish is harder to find during certain months? Shifting habitats and migration patterns of species is a common natural occurrence, but what if these changes are becoming more drastic and more unpredictable because of climate change? That’s what a team of researchers at McGill University is investigating.

Climate, species, and their habitats

Leading the charge in this compelling research is Jake Lawlor, a Ph.D. student at McGill University. His recent study delves deep into the effects of climate change on species’ movements. Lawlor’s focus is on the range shifts of species – how far and which direction they move in response to a changing environment.

Broadly speaking, there’s a general anticipation that with the warming climate, species might pack their bags and move towards cooler environments. 

However, the results from Lawlor’s study, which tracked the movements of around 26,000 species through a global database called BioShifts, offers a fascinating perspective that challenges this assumption.

Climate change: Not just about temperature

The McGill study revealed that 59% of species did indeed move towards cooler environments, consistent with the basic assumption about global warming. 

But that’s not the entire story. What about the remaining 41%? These species exhibited movements that either didn’t occur at all or were in directions inconsistent with expectations based on warming temperatures.

So, this begs the question – is temperature the only major player in the game of climate change? If not, what else could be influencing species to change their habitats?

Lawlor and his team stepped up to this investigative challenge, trying to decipher the underlying causes behind these unexpected movements.

Shifting of species’ habitats

The team dug deeper into species-specific and climate-specific factors to better understand this puzzle. Could the specific life cycle of a species affect its reaction to warming? Would the features of the landscape influence the routes they take? Such questions form the basis of Lawlor’s research.

“Understanding these temperature-inconsistent shifts will be especially important in helping researchers create models that predict when warming is likely to lead to range shifts, as well as when it won’t,” noted Lawlor.

“For example, the type of life cycle of a particular species, or their sensitivity to warming, or the features of the landscape might help us to predict how likely the species in those habitats are to shift, and even the routes they might take.”

A cautionary tale

While the study provides valuable insights into the shifting habitats of various species due to climate change, the researchers caution that significant data gaps remain.

Most existing data on range shifts are concentrated in Europe and North America, leaving large portions of the globe underrepresented. Additionally, the data greatly overlook marine species, which are just as affected by environmental changes.

The researchers also point out that data collection has been uneven across different plant and animal groups, making it challenging to draw comprehensive conclusions.

This uneven distribution and lack of marine data highlight the need for more extensive, globally inclusive research to better understand the full impact of climate change on biodiversity.

“In other words, trends like averaged rates and directions of range shifts that we calculate based on observations of birds and insects might not tell us what to expect for shifts of kelp, or crops, or fish. Nor, as the climate changes, would they be sufficient to inform many conservation-management plans,” noted study senior author Jennifer Sunday.

More eyes on the field

With the acknowledgment of these data disparities, the McGill team stresses the need for enhanced monitoring of species shifts. This can help improve our understanding of the factors at play, leading to better strategies to preserve biodiversity in the face of climate change.

Lawlor’s study is a stark reminder that climate change isn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. It affects different regions and communities in distinct ways, presenting unique challenges that require tailored solutions. Addressing these issues demands our collective attention and action to ensure a sustainable future for all.

So, the next time you spot a new bird species in your backyard or notice a different kind of fish in your local market, remember – climate change doesn’t just affect humans; it’s reshaping the entire natural world.

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment.

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