60-Second Science

Fast Climate Change Moves Slow Species

Species attempt to remain in their thermometric comfort zone, but climate change is far outpacing the rate at which they can adapt. Karen Hopkin reports

It’s hard to feel a sense of urgency about climate change—it feels so slow. Well, try telling that to the critters dealing with it. Because new data suggest that the climate will change more than 100 times faster than the rate at which species can adapt. That’s according to a study published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. [A. Michelle Lawing and P. David Polly, "Pleistocene Climate, Phylogeny, and Climate Envelope Models: An Integrative Approach to Better Understand Species' Response to Climate Change"]

To assess this race between animals and the elements, scientists looked at climate records from the past 300,000 years, a period that included three ice ages. And they asked how a particular organism, the North American rattlesnake, coped with those climate changes.

They found that rattlesnakes, which are cold-blooded, deal with temperature changes by moving: their ranges have shifted about two meters a year to keep the snakes inside their comfort zone. Now, if global temperatures increase by another 1 to 6 degrees Celsius] over the next 90 years, as current models predict, rattlers could be forced to slither up to a thousand times farther. And the snakes may not have the legs for such a trip. 

How millions of other species will attempt to cope is a vast, unplanned evolutionary experiment. With no control in sight.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.] 

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