The Butterfly Effect: Early Spring Could Lead To Wildlife Population Declines

Photo credit: Carol Boggs

A chain of events caused by climate change has led to a decline in butterfly populations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, researchers at Stanford University recently found.

The study, published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters, could be prescient in determining the long-lasting effects of climate change on many of the world’s species.

As climate change leads to an early spring, the snowmelt caused by the warmer temperatures on the Rocky Mountains decreases the number of summer wildflowers. Fewer flowers, of course, mean less nectar available to butterflies.

In the researchers’ tests, the more nectar female butterflies ate, the more eggs they laid. Therefore, less available nectar led to fewer butterflies being born and, consequently, population declines, they concluded.

If climate change could have such a dramatic impact on butterfly populations, could similar cascading effects be seen in other wildlife species?

It’s quite likely, scientists say, because of the close interconnection among species within an ecosystem.

For instance, earlier snowmelt’s effect on flowers also impacts bees , which pollinate many of the plants that other species rely on for nutrition.

All of these studies serve to remind us of the wide-reaching impacts of climate change.

“Long-term studies such as ours are important to understanding the ‘ecology of place,’ and the effects of weather and possible climate change on population numbers,” says David Inouye, co-author of the paper. “This research is critical to assessing the broader effects of weather on an ever-changing Earth.”

 

Climate Change Occurring Too Quickly For Wildlife To Adapt

Species have been adapting to climate change – manmade or otherwise – since the beginning of their existence. However, a new study suggests that changes to Earth’s climate and the resulting effects on wildlife habitat are occurring too quickly for species to respond.

Although climate change is not a new phenomenon, its magnitude and rate are occurring much faster than over the past 300 millennia – a period that includes three ice ages. In fact, between now and 2100, climate change will be dramatic enough to require species to evolve at a rate 100 times faster than has been proven possible.

The study, conducted by Indiana University researchers and published in the scientific journal PLoS Onefocused on North American rattlesnakes.

The researchers determined that the rattlesnakes migrated an average of just 2.3 meters annually over the past 320,000 years and that their tolerance to climate has evolved about 100 to 1,000 times more slowly. These findings, the researchers said, show that migration has been the only way rattlesnakes have adapted to climate changes, at least in the recent past.

“We find that, over the next 90 years, at best these species’  ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years,” said Michelle Lawing, lead author of the paper. “This rate of change is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation.”

Using climate-prediction models for the next 90 years, the researchers found that the rattlesnakes’ ranges would be displaced by 430 meters to 2,400 meters per year, thus indicating that the snakes would be unable to move fast enough to keep up with the changes to its habitat.

Although this particular study focused on only one species, the researchers say that because rattlesnakes depend on the environment to regulate their body temperatures, the species is representative of how climate change affects many forms of life on the planet. A warming – or drastically altered – climate, therefore, has the potential to be disastrous to not only rattlesnakes, but other species as well.

Ocean Acidity Eating Away At Important Ecosystems

Photo credit: Toby Hudson

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could increase ocean acidity levels by 150% by the year 2100, which would have catastrophic effects on the planet’s ecosystems, a new report shows.

The study, conducted jointly by several United Nations (UN) sub-organizations, was prepared by scholars for the UN Climate Change Conference – to be held this June in Rio de Janeiro – in order to educate the global community about the vital need to protect the planet’s oceans from rising carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Ocean acidity levels have increased by 26% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. According to the UN report, even under a business-as-usual scenario, ocean-acidity levels would be destructive enough to dissolve calcium-carbonate phytoplankton and zooplankton species, which serve as a crucial food source in ocean ecosystems.

The impact would be most profound in colder temperate and polar regions, where carbon dioxide is more readily absorbed, wreaking further havoc on already threatened environments.

A grim picture? Perhaps. But the reality could be even worse if steps are not taken to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Nonetheless, and as cliche as it may sound, recognizing the problem is the first step in curing it. The good news is that one of the primary focuses of the climate-change conference in Rio will be to take action to mitigate and adapt to – and even reverse – ocean acidification to protect biodiversity and the planet’s ecosystems.

 

New Theory Behind Earth’s Great Extinction

Over 250 million years ago, a mass extinction annihilated nearly all of Earth’s living species. Scientists have proposed many theories for why this occurred, and until now, the most widely accepted explanation for the event had been that volcanic eruptions burned through coal beds, releasing carbon dioxide and other fatal toxins into the environment.

But researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, have uncovered a potential new reason for the mass extinction: mercury.

The study, published in the academic journal Geology, notes that the mass extinction occurred during the time of greatest volcanic activity in the planet’s history. Mercury deposition rates in this period were up to 30 times higher than in today’s volcanic activity, the researchers found. Levels this high could have been catastrophic enough to wipe out life on the planet.

Normally, algae acts as a purifier of toxins.

“Typically, algae acts like a scavenger and buries the mercury in the sediment, mitigating the effect in the oceans,” says Dr. Hamed Sanei, lead author of the study. “But in this case, the load was just so huge that it could not stop the damage.”

The new research has the potential to change the way scientists view not only the Earth’s past, but also its future.

“We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions,” adds Dr. Benoit Beauchamp, another author of the study. “This is a warning for us here on Earth today.”

However, it also shows how the planet’s resiliency, as well as surviving life forms’ ability to adapt to harsh conditions.

“After the system was overloaded and most of life was destroyed, the oceans were still able to self-clean, and we were able to move on to the next phase of life,” Sanei says.

Study Reveals Massive Ecological Effects Of Animal Population Declines

Photo by Erik Christensen

The loss of large predators and herbivores has led to a staggering ecological shift and, in some cases, even contributed to climate change, according to a new research released by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to the study, reductions in the populations of large animals have had detrimental effects on marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems around the world.

For example, whales sequester carbon in the ocean through the deposition of feces. Industrial whaling has caused whale populations to plummet over the last 100 years, causing an additional 105 million tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, the research concludes.

In this instance, a population decline has contributed to climate change. But the inevitable chicken-and-egg quandary emerges: Are the changes to the ecosystem leading to climate change, or is climate change resulting in ecological shifts?

Perhaps a combination of both, depending on the individual animal population and ecosystem. Even this study admits that, in addition to the loss of large predators and herbivores, a variety of factors – including land-use practices, habitat loss, pollution and climate change – have altered ecosystems worldwide.

Catch 22 aside, this research sends a clear message: Earth’s delicate balance is easily disrupted, and conservation is key to its survival.