Which Mammals Can Best Survive Climate Change?

An African elephant and its baby in Kenya
An African elephant and its baby in Kenya. 1001slide / E+ / Getty Images
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With the world experiencing more extreme weather due to climate change, landscapes are being altered and ecosystems are having to respond quickly. So which species are going to struggle and which are going to fare relatively well as extended droughts, heavy rains and floods reshape the world’s terrain?

In a new study, biologists Christie Le Coeur from the University of Oslo, Owen Jones from the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) and John Jackson, also from SDU, examined data from ten or more years of population variations for 157 mammal species from all over the world. They then compared the population data with climate and weather data from the same periods.

The findings of the study, “Life history predicts global population responses to the weather in terrestrial mammals,” were published in the journal eLife.

Through their research, the scientists gained insight as to how certain species have dealt with severe weather.

“We can see a clear pattern: Animals that live a long time and have few offspring are less vulnerable when extreme weather hits than animals that live for a short time and have many offspring. Examples are llamas, long-lived bats and elephants versus mice, possums and rare marsupials such as the woylie,” Jones said in a press release from SDU.

The researchers found that large animals with long lives can deal better with harsh conditions and continue to survive, reproduce and rear their young with more success than smaller animals who don’t live as long.

Larger animals are able to focus their energy on one baby or wait for conditions to improve, while small rodents with shorter lifespans experience bigger short term fluctuations in population. Because they have less fat reserves, when a long drought results in the loss of large portions of their food supply like flowers or insects, they may starve.

Examples of mammals that are less vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather are the African elephant, chimpanzee, Siberian tiger, white rhinoceros, American bison, grizzly bear, llama and greater horseshoe bat, reported Phys.org.

Unlike large mammals, small mammals can also experience population explosions when conditions are good, the press release said.

“These small mammals react quickly to extreme weather, and it goes both ways. Their vulnerability to extreme weather should therefore not be equated with a risk of extinction,” Jackson said in the press release.

In some cases, climate change isn’t the biggest factor influencing the vulnerability of a species to extinction, Jackson said.

“Habitat destruction, poaching, pollution and invasive species are factors that threaten many animal species — in many cases even more than climate change,” Jackson said in the press release.

The study gives an idea of how animal species in general could deal with climate change as it continues to alter weather patterns and landscapes.

“We expect climate change to bring more extreme weather in the future. Animals will need to cope with this extreme weather as they always have. So, our analysis helps predict how different animal species might respond to future climate change based on their general characteristics — even if we have limited data on their populations,” Jones said, as Earth.com reported.

For instance, not much is known about the rare marsupial the woylie, which is found in Australia, but since it has similarities to mice, scientists can anticipate that it will deal with extreme weather in a comparable way, the press release said.

As species’ original habitats become unlivable and they relocate, these adaptation analogies will help scientists to better foresee the ecological shifts that will greatly affect the function of the planet’s ecosystems.

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