Deer, Sparrows and Magpies Are All at 'Substantial Extinction Risk' Because They Can't Adapt to Global Warming Fast Enough

Scientists fear some types of bird and a species of deer won't be able to adapt quickly enough to survive the environmental devastation brought about by climate change.

The authors of a paper published in the journal Nature Communications predict the European roe deer, song sparrow, common murre and Eurasian magpie are among animals at risk of dying out.

In the face of rising temperatures following the Industrial Revolution, animals have been changing their life cycles. But some animals aren't adapting quickly enough to survive in the long term, according to researchers.

The team performed what is known as a meta-analysis, by poring over 71 studies on 17 species living in 13 countries to examine how animals respond to climate change. The research available for review largely related to birds, with only one mammal species, and mainly looked at animals inhabiting the Northern Hemisphere.

Co-author Viktoriia Radchuk of Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research told Newsweek the study shows that the phenological responses—or those relating to the timing of biological events, like egg-laying, of birds to climate change—are, on average, adaptive.

Past studies have suggested that climate change seems to be making these phenological events happen earlier, she explained. But it was unclear if the shifts affected whether animals could successfully reproduce.

"The significance of our findings lay in the fact that, although species show adaptive responses, they are not fast enough to ensure population persistence in the long term," she said. "So the species are not tracking climate at a pace that is sufficient to guarantee the population viability."

From the results, Radchuk explained it's unclear if similar trends would also be found in the Southern Hemisphere.

"Importantly, we show that for the majority of the studied species the actual lag behind the optimum phenotype exceeds the critical lag, indicating substantial extinction risk," she said. "What is worrisome is that our study species are mainly common ones, so that the conclusions for rare species will likely be even more pessimistic."

"This study shows that climate change is happening at a pace that is too fast for species to adapt to, and therefore we should aim to at least halt, if not reduce, the rate of climate change," said Radchuk. "Among the things that each of us can do are: switching to green energy for warming our houses and for traveling, reducing the air flights to a minimum and reducing our meat consumption."

Mark C. Urban, director of the Center of Biological Risk and Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut, did not work on the paper. He told Newsweek: "The possibility that species could adapt to climate change is one of the real bright spots in this gloomy field. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning."

"This study suggests evidence that species are responding adaptively in their traits, but that these changes are not necessarily keeping up," he said.

wildlife, nature, roe deer, stock getty,
A stock image of roe deer: a species which scientists say is under threat. Getty

Professor Ary Hoffman, who researches evolution and genetic adaptation to climate stress at Australia's University of Melbourne, pointed out some limitations to Newsweek. "The study makes inferences about whether species can adapt to 'keep up' with climate change which will ultimately depend on a combination of genetic changes and plasticity ([the] ability of individuals to modify their behavior, size, physiology, etc. within their lifetimes), and these factors cannot be separated in the current study even though both are critically important," he said.

"Also the generation span considered so far is quite short, and unfortunately the authors were unable to use data from other species that have much shorter generation times," he argued.

Urban said he hopes the research will help to funnel resources to studying adaptive responses to climate change.

"We have now entered a new age, a global heat age, and biologists cannot just be nature descriptors, we also need to become nature forecasters," he said.

"The grand challenge for all of biology is to understand climate responses from the basis of individual species so that we can forecast these changes, anticipate them, and in many cases figure out how to save declining species and changing ecosystems," said Urban. "Unfortunately, right now we don't know enough to make these decisions and risk wasting scant conservation money on cryptically resilient species. The patients are lining up at the door, but we don't know which ones to treat first."