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Imagine a planet where jellyfish rule the seas, giant rodents roam the mountains and swarms of insects blur everything in sight. It may sound far-fetched, but enough global warming is likely to change the distribution of wildlife on Earth. While species that are under threat, such as the polar bear, seem to get all the attention, others are beginning to thrive like never before.
In the past three months, new studies have been published about killer whales, wandering albatross and trumpeter swans—all of which appear to be benefiting from climate change.
Melting ice is turning the Arctic Sea into a giant buffet for killer whales. They have been arriving in growing numbers to feed on belugas, seals and narwhals, according to a recent study by scientists from the University of Manitoba. Warmer temperatures make it easier for the whales to hunt because their prey is less likely to climb onto sea ice or hide below it to escape.
At the opposite end of the world, in Antarctica's Southern Ocean, changing winds have been helping the wandering albatross find food faster. Researchers say global warming has produced stronger air currents that allow the birds to spend less time away from their nests, increasing the odds that their chicks will survive.
"The duration of foraging trips has decreased, breeding success has improved and birds have increased in mass by more than 1 kilogram," wrote the study's authors, who called their findings "positive consequences of climate change."
In Arctic areas, global warming is happening at roughly twice the average speed, which has allowed Alaska's trumpeter swans to expand their breeding grounds northward into regions that were previously too cold, according to a study published in Wildlife Biology in December.
"We knew that the population was expanding, both in numbers and spatially on the landscape," said Joshua Schmidt, a biometrician for the National Park Service Inventory and Monitoring Program and a co-author of the study.
Ice age veterans swan around
After analyzing more than 40 years of data, researchers discovered the swans were benefiting in two ways from global warming: They had expanded their territory northward, and they were seeing about three more snow-free days than before 1940. These shorter winters mean the swans—which were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1800s—now have more time to eat and grow strong before embarking on a long migration to the Pacific Northwest each fall, improving their chances for survival.
"Swans have been through an ice age or two, so climate change isn't something they haven't seen before," said James King, a biologist who used to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. After studying swans for about 50 years, King believes the birds "know how to deal with climate change." Historically, they have found ways to outsmart the cold by nesting near hot springs, which prolongs their breeding season, he said.
"There will definitely be some animals that will do better with longer summer and milder winter," said Paul Curtis, an extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University. "Fifty years from now, central New York may be as warm as North or South Carolina. It's a much faster change than we've seen any time historically, and it's just a question of how some of these species will respond."