A collaborative study released yesterday involving scientists from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative has shown that climate change is altering species distributions and populations, seemingly through shifting interactions between species rather than direct responses to climate.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
The study, led by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and involving Fauna & Flora International, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Royal Society for Protection of Birds and BirdLife International, as well as Cambridge University, reviewed almost 150 published studies of climatic impacts on natural populations.
An ecosystem is made up of a multitude of species interacting with each other. This study has shown that many of the climate-related impacts on a given species occur as a result of changes in population and behavior of other species within the ecosystem, which then cascade through the food chain.
For example, Arctic fox populations have been affected by declining lemming populations (which is linked to changes in snow cover) and by expanding red fox populations. In the UK, upland birds such as the golden plover are affected by increasing summer temperatures, which causes problems for their crane fly prey.
These disruptions particularly affect predatory species, and appear to have worsened with climate change. Dr James Pearce-Higgins of the BTO said, “Although it might be assumed that most species are responding directly to climatic changes, either as individuals move to keep within their favoured climate zone, or through survival and reproductive rates linked closely to these climatic variables, this does not account for the majority of impacts. Instead, the main impacts of climate change occur through altered interactions between species within an ecosystem.”
Importantly, since much conservation action is already about managing species’ populations (such as controlling invasive species or reducing predation risk), we already have the conservation tools in place to reduce the impacts of climate change on species.
This understanding therefore provides hope that we can help the most vulnerable species adapt to climate change—providing that the magnitude of climate change is not too great, and that conservation activity is sufficiently funded.
For example, in the UK uplands, degraded peatland habitats can be restored to boost invertebrate crane fly populations and increase their resilience to climate change.
Whilst this work also helps identify the types of species most vulnerable to climate change impacts, there remains a lack of information from the tropics, where most species occur. Increased monitoring and research in tropical regions will therefore be essential.
“This study highlights a need to consider the often complex ecological relationships between species when assessing the impacts of climate change on wildlife,” says Jamie Carr of the IUCN, a co-author on the study. “Most research to date has focused on the direct impacts of changing conditions, which may mean that important emerging threats are being overlooked.”
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Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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