Animals are shapeshifting to survive rising temperatures
George Edwards explains how some animals are adapting to the climatic warming of the Earth and draws on the scary truth that not all species will be able to adapt.
A recent study published in the journal ‘Trends in Ecology and Evolution’, has revealed that animals are adapting their morphologies to deal with climate change. In short, shape-shifters are no longer a thing from ‘Supernatural’ or sci-fi, but are now a reality.
Shape-shifters are no longer a thing from ‘Supernatural’ or sci-fi.
Animals have to regulate their body temperature to avoid overheating and dying. Different groups do this in different ways, with reptiles using the environment to do so (such as lying on hot rocks to warm up, or diving into water or under shade to cool down) whereas mammals are able to change their own inner body temperature to deal with small changes in climate, via the process of thermoregulation. In warmer climates, mammals and birds emit excess heat mainly via their ears and beaks, respectively, though often make use of their arms/legs and wings as well. The larger the body part, the larger the surface area and the more heat can be lost. Therefore, species or individuals with larger appendages have a higher chance of survival in hotter climates.
To adapt to climate change, some species have begun to evolve larger appendages to ensure their survival as temperatures rise. Since 1871, a parrot species in Australia has had a 4-10 per cent increase in bill size, correlating with increasing temperatures. Similarly, the study discovered that wood mice are evolving longer tails, shrews longer legs and bats bigger wings, just to name a few. The authors explain that though the changes are small now, as climate change increases they will become more pronounced.
Since 1871, a parrot species in Australia has had a 4-10 per cent increase in bill size, correlating with increasing temperatures.
In an interview with the BBC, Ryder explained “Prominent appendages such as ears are predicted to increase [in size], so we may end up with a live-action Dumbo.”
She goes on to explain that “Shapeshifting does not mean animals are coping with climate change…it just means they are evolving to survive it, but we’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or that all species are capable of changing.”
The authors stress that climate change is not the only factor pushing this adaptation. Furthermore, not all species will be able to adapt in this way, or may not be able to adapt quickly enough, so the likeliness of a mass extinction caused by climate change is still very high.