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Birds and elephants are changing shape to cope with climate change

·3-min read
Photo credit: Dennis Glosik / 500px
Photo credit: Dennis Glosik / 500px

We know that animals evolve to adapt, but could climate change be forcing them to change much quicker?

A review published in the Trends In Ecology & Evolution journal, written by bird researcher Sara Ryding from Deakin University, says that warm-blooded animals are adapting to hotter environments by growing their legs, ears and beaks.

Why are animals changing shape?

Whilst many species are in decline and are slowly facing extinction, Ryding’s paper shows that there are some species evolving to overcome it. Be it elephants increasing the size of their ears, or birds increasing the length of their wings, animals seem to be enlarging their surface area so they can cool down quicker when temperatures soar.

Ryding's paper shows that this is currently happening to warm-blooded animals in the hottest countries.

What is the science behind it?

Different animals cool down in different ways. Whilst elephants will flap their ears, birds will fan their wings. Allen’s rule says that animals in hotter climates will have larger wings, legs or ears so they can cool off easier – and it appears they are getting even bigger. It seems that, with the onset of climate change, these animals are evolving much quicker so they can more easily deal with the warmth.

There is no solid proof yet to suggest that this is directly because of climate change and Ryding acknowledges that "more widespread study on the link between Allen’s rule and shape-shifting is needed." But due to the adaptations being seen in a wide range of species and regions, experts believe the climate is the likely cause.

Ryding says that "it’s high time we recognised that animals also have to adapt to these changes, but this is occurring over a far shorter timescale than would have occurred through most of evolutionary time."

Ryding also says that "the climate change that we have created is heaping a whole lot of pressure on them [the evolving animals], and while some species will adapt, others will not."

"Shapeshifting does not mean that animals are coping with climate change and that all is fine," Ryding continues. "It just means they are evolving to survive it – but we’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving."

The future

Ryding’s paper mentions that this rapid evolution is not likely to end, but only carry on as climate change continues.

"The changes are unlikely to be immediately noticeable," says Ryding. However, more pronounced body parts are likely to increase in size, "so we might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future."

What is clear is the rapid and significant impact that climate change is having on not just us humans, but on our wildlife also. Ryding says that continued study of multiple sources "must be prioritised," and the increase in the dying-out of species will shed more light on the situation.

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