From plants and crustaceans to birds and mammals, species across the food chain in the United Kingdom are shifting how they respond to seasonal changes, and British researchers say climate change is a major reason why.

Stephen Thackeray, a lake ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Lancaster, England, said not all species were responding to environmental changes in the same way. The predatory species at the top of the food chain were changing the timing of their seasonal activities more slowly in response to warmer temperatures than other organisms. This suggests that species lower down on the food chain will change their behavior more as temperatures continue to rise.

“It’s important to note that our projections are not saying absolutely that we will have widespread de-synchronization across all ecosystems. What we’re saying is this kind of effect is likely, at least in some systems and possibly over quite broad scales,” he said.

Thackeray was one of more than two dozen researchers who participated in a recent Nature study that analyzed how 800 species responded to increases in temperature and precipitation in the United Kingdom between 1960 and 2012.

While previous research has explored how climate change throws species behavior and development patterns out of sync with each other, this was one of the first to take a broad national look at how those changes varied among species on different levels of the food chain.

The researchers also modeled how these species were likely to respond in the future. Based on past patterns, they predicted crustaceans, fish and insects would show greater seasonal changes than species like freshwater phytoplankton, birds and mammals.

“Species generally have been more sensitive to temperature change than they have been to precipitation change, and I suspect that is probably because the U.K. is a relatively wet country and maybe precipitation isn’t really a limiting factor for many of the species here,” Thackeray said.

The researchers’ findings did not mean that other species around the world would follow similar patterns. For example, precipitation could play a much greater role in species behavior in other countries.

The research confirmed findings from a number of other studies that had suggested climate change impacts on seasonal changes could effect the timing of interactions between species but stopped short of explaining what those changes would mean in practical terms for species’ survival.

Volker Rudolf, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University in Texas who was not involved with the research, said this study tried to match species by location and local climate, a much more detailed approach than previous studies he has seen.

“They’ve done a better job at looking at sensitivities of which period do [species] respond, and when do these changes happen. I don’t think that’s something that previous studies have done very well,” Rudolf said.

“I think what we’re trying to do right now is link these shifts to the dynamics of communities and look at the consequences. That’s currently the key link that’s missing,” he said.

To gain a better understanding about what the time shifts will mean for plants and animals along the food chain, researchers would need to do much more long-term observational research on specific ecosystems. This would help determine what species might be resilient to climate change and perhaps identify new emerging relationships between species that could help them survive in the future, Thackeray said.

“I hope that this study is a motivation to develop our understanding of those mechanisms that might make ecosystems resilient or not to changing seasonality in the future,” he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500