Posted on behalf of Lee Sweetlove.
A meta-study published in Science today provides the first evidence that global movement of plants and animals to higher latitudes and altitudes is directly linked to climate change. The research, led by ecologist Chris Thomas at the University of York, UK, also reveals that species are moving two to three times faster than previously thought.
Ecologists tracking the movement of butterflies, such as the comma butterfly (pictured), first noticed over ten years ago that their range was shifting. Since then, it has become clear that large numbers of different plants and animals across the globe are moving towards the poles or to higher ground (see “”http://www.nature.com/news/2003/030106/full/news030106-1.html">Warming planet shifts life north and early" and “”http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110121/full/news.2011.33.html">Coral marches to the poles"). The most likely explanation is that organisms are moving to cooler latitudes or altitudes to escape the effects of global warming, but, until now, this has not been proven.
Thomas’s team, together with collaborators from Durham University and the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, has shown that for a range of taxonomic groups – arthropods, birds, fish, mammals, molluscs, plants, and reptiles – species are moving further on average from areas with the highest level of warming.
Crucially, the extent of latitude or altitude shift tends to match that predicted to keep a taxonomic group within the same temperature range as the earth warms. This provides the first direct evidence to link species movement to climate change.
Thomas describes the correlation between temperature and species movement as “amazingly strong”, given that other factors such as habitat destruction and incursion of invasive species are also likely to influence the results.
Ecologists fear that such movement of species on a global scale is likely to affect biodiversity by disrupting the delicate balance of ecological communities and accelerating extinctions. The fact that this is happening faster than was previously thought means there is even less time to integrate the effects of species movement into conservation programmes.
Image courtesy of Butterfly Conservation & Jim Asher