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Many Species Will Have To Evolve 10,000 Times Faster To Adapt To Climate Change, Study Finds

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"Many Species Will Have To Evolve 10,000 Times Faster To Adapt To Climate Change, Study Finds"

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A Rock Frog, a species in decline due to a combination of climate change, a fungus that has been killing amphibians around the world, and habitat loss. (Credit: AP/Ricardo Arduengo)

Climate change is moving too quickly for many vertebrate species to adapt, a new study has found. The study, published in the journal Ecology Letters, found species would have to evolve 10,000 times faster than they have in the past in order to keep up with the earth’s rapidly changing climate, a rate of evolution that the study’s authors say is “largely unprecedented based on observed rates.”

Researchers examined the evolutionary trees of 17 families of the major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, including frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, crocodilians, birds and mammals. They looked at when species split off into new species in the past, and what was happening climatically in their niche environment when they did so. They compared that, in turn, to the rates of climate change scientists predict through 2100.

“We found that on average, species usually adapt to different climatic conditions at a rate of only by about 1 degree Celsius per million years,” researcher John J. Wiens, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of Arizona, told the UA News Service. “But if global temperatures are going to rise by about 4 degrees over the next hundred years as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, that is where you get a huge difference in rates. What that suggests overall is that simply evolving to match these conditions may not be an option for many species.”

Though some of the 540 species studied may be able to change their habitat ranges — moving north as climate warms, for example — or persist as a whole even if several populations die out, extinction is a real threat for many of them. These extinctions could in turn affect other species that may not be directly impacted by changing temperatures themselves. In a previous study, Wiens and co-authors found that declines and extinctions of species are often due to changes in their interactions with other species. Even a certain species moving north could have big consequences for existing native species — the displaced organism could out-compete the native wildlife for food and habitat, leading, ultimately, to population extinction.

It’s a long and widely-held position in science that evolution moves slowly, taking hundreds, thousands or even millions of years, but other previous studies have challenged that belief — a 2008 study found lizards introduced to a remote island in the 1970s underwent dramatic physical changes in just a few decades, and a 2006 study found a species of Galapagos finch species developed a smaller beak in just 20 years.

It’s been unclear so far, however, how exactly the Earth’s wildlife will react to climate change, but the initial findings haven’t been promising. A recent study found that small birds, like the great tit, might have the most chance of adapting to a changing climate, but another report found that migratory birds, which are often dependent on phenology changes — set times for spring bud burst and insect hatchings, for example — are highly threatened by climate change. The IPCC predicts that between 40 and 70 percent of species could go extinct if temperatures rise by more than 3.5 degrees Celsius, and a recent study found that, when CO2 levels doubled towards the end of the Triassic Period, three-quarters of all Earth’s species died off.

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11 Responses to Many Species Will Have To Evolve 10,000 Times Faster To Adapt To Climate Change, Study Finds

  1. Hans Berg says:

    The species I am most concerned for is Homo sapiens.

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    And many (most) wont.

  3. Jeff in Iowa says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t terrestrial vertebrates eat a lot of insects?

    • Barry says:

      “Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t terrestrial vertebrates eat a lot of insects?”

      Yes. And in many places warmer weather means that the insects will eat, grow and breed far faster. And have generations which are very short, allowing for massive population growth and evolution.

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        A grand new source of food for many, ME

      • Vic says:

        Looking on the bright side, the evolution of insecticides might save our croplands from the ‘swarms of my grandchildren’ , just look at the success we’ve had with honey bees.

  4. rollin says:

    We know this already. How do we stop and reverse some of this change?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      We beg our Masters for mercy, and they consult their accountants, the soothsayers of the Age, and decide whether it is more profitable for us to live or die.

  5. wili says:

    In other words, we are already deep inside a mass extinction event, one that will only accelerate as the effects of GW really kicks in, including when massive crop failures become common and people everywhere turn toward their fellow creatures for sustenance.

    This is the proud legacy of the human race (and of industrial society in particular):

    We came into a planet brimming with a vast diversity of life, and we are leaving it a sterile rock.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Not entirely. Don’t forget our little friends, the bacteria and viruses – very versatile and nimble in evolutionary terms, ME

  6. David Sheridan says:

    Species come and species go. Looks like it’s going to be the bugs’ turn for a while.