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Climate Change Leaves Bird Species With Uncertain Futures

Climate Change Leaves Bird Species With Uncertain Futures

Climate change continues to alter animal behavior across the globe, but new research provides a snapshot of species turnover for European birds over the past ten years — and the results are startling.

For a long time now, scientists have warned that climate change presents a significant threat to biodiversity.

Indeed, areas of the world that were once considered hotspots for certain rare fish, mammals and birds are now transforming as their native species move to more temperate regions, leaving other animals to take their place. And many times this shift threatens to collapse food webs.

Many wildlife scientists are interested in examining how a changing climate might affect birds, as well as “species turnover,” in which some animals leave a region — either through extinction or due to steady habitat changes — and are replaced by others.

Researchers from the Natural Environment Centre and the Finnish Museum of Natural History wanted to explore whether predictions about the fate of European bird species are actually coming true.
One major hypothesis is that there will be a noticeable shift of bird species moving northward as they dodge the warming weather. Another prediction suggested by scientific models is that in higher latitudes, there should be an increase in overall species richness or, put simply, the number of different species in a given area.

To test this, the researchers examined a 35-year span of data. The data sets looked at all 235 bird species native to Finland during two distinct periods – 1974 to 1989 and 2006 to 2010. Crucially, the two data sets used similar tracking and counting methods, meaning they could be directly compared.

The researchers published their findings this month in the journal “Ecology and Evolution,” concluding that species indeed appear to be migrating north.

The researchers found that species turnover was high, with ranges and numbers shifting dramatically across the two time periods. About 37 percent of species showed an increase, while 34.9 percent demonstrated a decrease in occupied territory. When the researchers looked at species turnover as a whole, they saw that 95.7 percent of all species changed, either in terms of the areas or range they occupied.

That loss of range was partly accounted for by migratory birds. Across Europe there has been a noticeable decline in migratory bird populations, and this latest study seems to support that fact.

However, the researchers were in for a surprise when they explored the second prediction — that species richness should increase at high altitude locations. The researchers actually found that species richness remained relatively constant.

In the abstract of the study, the researchers conclude:

The results show that there is an ongoing considerable species turnover due to climate change and due to land use and other direct human influence. High bird species turnover observed in northern Europe may also affect the functional diversity of species communities.

It is this latter point that is perhaps most important: If bird species richness doesn’t change, we’re probably looking at bird species loss. And when that happens, overall diversity of species also decreases.

That’s because animals are often part of complex food webs — and when one set of organisms is removed, it can drastically change how the other species interact. In this case, many birds prey on insects, rodents and other small mammals.

Though nothing is certain at this stage — and the data cannot accurately predict future outcomes, given the number of variables — the researchers believe that this kind of shift in bird species territories and diversity could indicate long-term, and even permanent, changes to biodiversity as a result of climate change.

None of that is necessarily bad when examined in isolation, but it adds to evidence that climate change impacts bird behavior. And the bird species we have come to know and love in our surrounding environment might not always be here unless we act now to curb the worst effects of climate change.

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