Birds and Mammals Can Survive Climate Change Thanks to 1 Key Evolutionary Advantage
Science fiction is filled with tales of super-sized, super-resilient reptiles. Just because they've survived on this planet for millions of years, though, doesn't mean they're going to outlast us all.
A new study, published yesterday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, actually confirms the contrary. It analyzed near 11,500 species of animals to gauge their resilience over the past 270 million years of climate change, when the weather fluctuated between extreme temperatures. Their findings put forward the theory that warm-blooded creatures have a much more resilient coping mechanism than amphibians or reptiles.
"Here, we compare the evolution of climatic niches in four main groups of terrestrial vertebrates using a modeling approach integrating both palaeontological and neontological data, and large-scale datasets that contain information on the current distributions, phylogenetic relationships and fossil records for a total of 11,465 species," reads the study's abstract. "By reconstructing historical shifts in geographical ranges and climatic niches, we show that niche shifts are significantly faster in endotherms (birds and mammals) than in ectotherms (squamates and amphibians)."
"We see that mammals and birds are better able to stretch out and extend their habitats, meaning they adapt and shift much easier," said lead study author Jonathan Rolland in a statement. "This could have a deep impact on extinction rates and what our world looks like in the future."
As the Earth's climate has changed significantly throughout history, researchers have found these changes largely determined where animals live. Our planet was fairly warm and tropical until 40 million years ago, but once it started to cool, birds and mammals evolved to adapt to cold and began to migrate to habitats in more northern and southern regions.
Rolland added that these findings explain why we see so few exotherm reptiles or amphibians in the Antarctic or temperate habitats. In contrast, endotherms that can better regulate their body temperatures, and as such can keep eggs warm and adapt to harsh conditions much quicker.
Though some of the worst-case climate change scenarios have recently been debunked, a recent study of climate change's effects on Norweigan Glaciers revealed some 6,000-year-old, pre-Viking artifacts preserved in melted ice that helped form a picture of the region's climate history. Meanwhile, climate change is causing 99 percent of Australian sea turtles to be born female, and will also likely contribute to an increase in volcanic eruptions in the coming years.