Orinthologist Ben Sheldon took an innovative approach to studying the effects of climate change on one little bird species, the great tit. Instead of assuming that the bird could only survive under its current environmental conditions, he looked at its ability to adapt over time.
Using 50 years of data on when the great tit laid its eggs, Sheldon first looked for established patterns of egg-laying in relation to the climate. The LA Times explains, “on average, the birds had shifted their egg-laying time two weeks earlier in the year since the study began in 1960,” and that “Females that had multiple clutches were able to adjust their egg-laying time year by year as temperatures varied.”
But the study gets even more interesting with what the researchers did next: They ran a simulation to test how the great tits would respond to low, medium, or high levels of carbon emissions in the future. And the outlook looks great for the great tit:
[T]he Wytham great tit population is predicted to be able to adapt to a maximum long-term rate of increase in spring temperature of 0.47°C y−1, i.e. >15 times the rate of temperature change of 0.030°C y−1 predicted under a high emissions scenario for this location and time in the annual cycle…. we ran 100,000 simulations, with each simulation randomly sampling from a normal error distribution of parameters σ2h2, γ, T, B, and b. This resulted in an estimated probability of 0.001 that ηc falls below 0.030°C y−1 (Figure 2a), and hence again very little likelihood of extinction due to predicted temperature change
In layman’s terms, this means that great tits will be able to adjust to our changing global temperatures, even under the worst-case scenario predictions. The researchers predict that, even if the great tit couldn’t change when it lays its eggs, they’d have a 40 percent chance of surviving through evolution.
Other woodland creatures have had much worse fates befall them thanks to climate change. Take for example the mountain-dwelling pika, a furry little mammal called the “mountain bunny of the Rockies.” Pika are so sensitive to changing temperatures that the recent heat and drought in the American west is driving them quickly to extinction. The pika aren’t alone; the painted turtle is losing all of its men thanks to climate change, and many species of marmots, including groundhogs, are on the decline. Sadly, it’s just the beginning; models project that between 40 and 70 percent of species could go extinct if global temperatures rise by more than 3.5°C.