A new study on climate change and evolution shows that climate change is happening so fast that many vertebrate species can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with the pace. They would have to evolve ten thousand times faster than they currently are to keep up with the climate change that is expected for the next hundred years.
The study compared the past rates of adaptation to the modern rates of climate change. Scientists analyzed 540 vertebrate species and the speed of their adaptation to climate change in the past. This included amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The study concluded that land based vertebrates do not evolve anywhere near fast enough to adapt to the new trends of climate change, resulting in possible extinction if they are not able to migrate, acclimate, and eventually evolve. Each species has their own comfort zone when speaking about temperature, climate and environment, which is why you won’t see penguins in the Amazon or monkeys in Antarctica.
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According to Wiens, who conducted the research along with another postgraduate research assistant at Yale University, findings show that on average, species evolve and adapt to climate changes at a rate of about 1 degree Celsius per million years. However, if the International Panel of Climate Change is correct and we should expect a rise of 4 degrees in the next hundred years, a vast number of species won’t be able to evolve quickly enough.
These conclusions came from studying evolutionary family trees of vertebrates that show how species relate to each other through DNA. The data gathered from the trees was then compared with the data on the climatic niche of each species. This allowed the scientists to evaluate at what pace the species changed in their given climatic niche. Most sister species evolved to live in habitats whose temperature difference was just 1-2 degrees Celsius over the course of one to a few million years.
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Overall, most of the vertebrate groups contain some species that will be potentially endangered. It does’t have to be all that bad though. Species can acclimate but not truly evolve, or they could migrate to their preferred climate. Unfortunately, for some species this is not an option as they move very slowly or are required to go through habitats that are heavily influenced by humans.
It should be noted that most extinction cases are not a direct effect of the physiological burden of climate change, rather the changes in interaction with other species, as well as their food availability. For example, if an area experiences serious droughts and plants cannot grow causing low food availability for those animals, it would ultimately result in their migration or demise.
Although all life can evolve to meet the demands of a new environment, a necessary ingredient to evolution is time, something the world does not have.