When most of us think of climate change, we think about how it affects humans and change life as we know it. And we’ve already experienced some effects of global warming: Think severe hurricanes, freezing temperatures, and wildfires. But have you ever wondered how these new conditions are affecting animal species?
In this week’s episode of Good Together, Brightly’s founder Laura Wittig speaks with Thor Hanson, a biologist and the author of the book Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid, to discuss the impact climate change has on animal species and what we can learn from our animal friends.
“I felt there was so much we were overlooking in our public discourse about this topic because, after all, it’s not really the change so much that matters as the response to that change,” he says. “If all plants and animals got along just as well, in all conditions, then tweaking the weather one way or another wouldn’t matter in the slightest. But of course, that’s not how nature works. The diversity of life on this planet is this wonderful accumulation of specialty, if you will. All of these species adapted to particular environmental conditions. And when those conditions change, the species must adapt.”
Hanson also says the consequences of climate change are happening right in our own backyards; climate change isn’t a distant issue. In his book, he analyzes the changes animals have made to survive in unprecedented circumstances, such as habitat loss, food loss, and other climate change conditions.
From lizards to squids to seabirds, here’s how animals are adapting—and what we can do to help.
Animals and Climate Change: How Species Are Adapting
The term “survival of the fittest” isn’t new. Coined by Charles Darwin in the late 19th Century, survival of the fittest tells us species that are the most well-adjusted to their environments will thrive and reproduce. Thus, the process of natural selection takes place. See the anole lizards in the Caribbean surviving hurricanes.
Hanson says herpetologist Colin Donihue studied the difference between the lizards that survived the hurricane conditions and the lizards that did not.
“When he ran the numbers, he found the lizards were different,” Hanson says. “The survivors were the lizards with large toe pads and strong front legs, which more or less made sense to me. You could imagine these lizards hanging on tight in a windstorm. And those would be advantages in that situation.”
Hanson says Donihue measured natural selection taking place in a single field season, rather than over the course of hundreds of years. And this shows how animals will use their biological features to help them survive in new conditions, like hurricanes.
It’s easier for people who interact with animal species on a daily basis to notice how animal populations are changing and how nature is changing. And one example of this? Fishermen in Mexico who have traditionally fished for Humboldt squids in the Gulf of California have noticed a change in the species.
The squids were impacted by marine heatwaves, and the fishermen thought the squid had disappeared from the waters. However, the squids didn’t leave. Instead, they demonstrated plasticity: the ability to adapt and survive.
“These squid had natural abilities already built into their system in that when that water started to heat up, something triggered the young squid either at the stage of the egg or even at the very smallest stages to adopt a different lifestyle,” Hanson says. “And the same genes were expressed in different ways.”
Instead of departing the warmer waters, these squids took on a new form using pre-existing genetics and qualities. And because of this, Hanson says Humbolt squids have been able to roll with the punches and adapt to the warmer water temperatures.
Similar to how Humbolt squids adapted to new conditions, Dovekies, small seabirds in the Arctic, needed to adapt to a change in their food source. To do this, the Dovekies had to change their feeding patterns because krill, their food source, had become vulnerable to climate change conditions.
A team of scientists, including French scientist David Grémillet, studied dovekies in the Russian Arctic. And they predicted the Dovekies would have to migrate long distances, as the ice where krill is found moves further away from nesting Dovekies. However, they found that the Dovekies didn’t have to travel far at all.
“What they realized was that the Dovekies had indeed pivoted from their ancient habit of feeding along the edge of the pack ice to a new feeding opportunity that had been created by climate change, in that the glaciers on the islands were of course melting,” Hanson says.
And because the plankton was unable to migrate into new waters that have formed as a result of climate change, Dovekies were able to thrive.
“The dovekies had recognized this; they had discovered this food source that was right on the doorstep of their breeding colony,” Hanson says. “And they were all out there plucking plankton off of that underwater curtain. And in fact, their population—at least in that breeding location—was thriving.”
What Can We Learn From Adapting Animals?
So the big questions are: Why does animal adaptation matter and what can we learn from it? According to Hanson, it’s important for scientists to understand the difference between how generalized and specialized species adapt—or how they can’t adapt.
“In this time of rapid change, the species that are generalists that are flexible in their habits and can roll with the punches,” he says. “They have a great advantage over species that are specialists and that only do one thing.”
Because specialized species can’t adapt as easily as generalized species, specialized species become vulnerable. However, there’s an upside to discovering which species are at risk: We can figure out ways to help.
“That’s one of the important take-home messages from climate change biology,” Hanson says. “It doesn’t make scientists worry less about this crisis, but it can help them worry smart. It can help them identify the creatures and plants that are most at risk, so we can allocate scarce resources in terms of policy and conservation effort to the species and systems that need our help the most.”
Hanson also says humans are just like animals: We also adapt to changes in our environment. Take the impact Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans residents in 2004, for example. The city and the residents who stayed after the storm made efforts to adapt to living in a hurricane-prone city. They built a new seawall for protection.
But another component to nature is movement, and many New Orleans residents left the state because the environment wasn’t suitable for them anymore. So all in all, humans aren’t so different from our animal friends—we’re all learning, adapting, and moving.
Small Actions, Big Changes
While it may seem like climate change is an issue too big for us to solve on an individual level, Hanson says it’s actually the small actions we take that leave a positive impact. And individual responses can lead to greater solutions.
“What we’re really talking about long-term as a solution to the climate crisis is a fundamental cultural shift in our relationship to energy. Not only how we produce it, but how we use it and how much of it our lifestyles demand,” he says. “The small things we do in daily life add up to that cultural change. Cultures don’t change from the top down—they change from the bottom up.”
Hanson believes in what scientists refer to as the positive feedback loop. So doing something that elicits a positive reaction—such as living a more eco-friendly lifestyle—makes you want to keep doing it. And when we incorporate small environmentally-friendly changes into our everyday routines, it adds up to a bigger change.
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