Keeping Up with Climate Change

In order to adapt to this century’s changing temperatures, vertebrates will need to evolve much faster than in previous eras.

By | July 24, 2013

FLICKR, NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTEROne way for species to beat climate change is to evolve to thrive at new temperatures. But a study published last month (June 26) in the journal Ecology Letters argues that vertebrates will need to evolve at rates that are “largely unprecedented” to match the pace at which today’s temperatures are changing.

The researchers calculated past rates of evolution in response to temperature by looking at the evolutionary histories of more than 500 currently living species, including various reptiles, birds, amphibians, and mammals.

They analyzed pairs of closely related species and noted the current average temperatures in their habitats, as well as the historical temperatures predicted for the habitat of their common ancestor. They then calculated the rate at which the species evolved as the temperatures of their habitats changed.

"We found that, on average, species usually adapt to different climatic conditions at a rate of only by about 1 degree Celsius per million years," John Wiens, an author of the paper and an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, said in a press release.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that, in a scenario where the economy grows rapidly and fossil fuels are used intensively, temperatures on Earth will rise by an average of 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. The researchers say that to withstand this pace of change, vertebrates would need to respond to changes in climate more than 10,000 times faster than they have on average in the past.

However, Michael Donoghue, a Yale University ecologist and evolutionary biologist who was not involved in the study, told ScienceNOW that perhaps animals have adapted slowly in response to changing climate because historically there has been less pressure to evolve rapidly. “Somebody could reasonably argue that they’ve been evolving at this rate because climates have been changing slowly.”

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Avatar of: Ed M.

Ed M.

Posts: 45

July 24, 2013

When has the the climate ever done anything but "change"?

Life has adapted to Five Great Extinctions.

I think we can manage a slightly warmer world, since it beats an Ice Age and 2 mile thick ice sheets over the northern hemisphere.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

July 24, 2013

Species cannot evolve that fast, so they will do what they can do in the short term...they move, something already seen for the past several decades worldwide.  Unfortunately, many ecosystems will not be prepared for their arrival, and the dire consequences are obvious.

Regarding Ed M.'s comments:

No, life re-evolved after mass extinctions.

No, because we depend on more living organisms than I can count for our basic survival, we will not manage a slightly warmer world.  While we can turn on our home, office, and car air conditioners.  They can't.

I didn't think that, for our immediate future, there was a single choice between an Ice Age and global warming catastrophe.  I thought that something in between was much more desirable.

Avatar of: Pompous Git

Pompous Git

Posts: 1

July 28, 2013

@ Paul Stein


What makes 1 deg C in 100 years too rapid for organisms to adapt to the change and 3-5 deg C in a decade slow enough? It seems that most of the last 4.3 bn yr the climate was a lot warmer than the current icehouse.

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