Helping Wild Animals Respond To Climate Change
Some animal species that were previously common have declined by 50% over the past 40 years. Meanwhile, more and more biologists claim that the behavioral responses of animals to climate change will be a deciding factor in predicting susceptibility to this threat. To limit further species’ population losses and promote an “animal-friendly” anthropocene – if such a thing is possible – science must help society plan for, and raise, animals’ resilience to climate change.
In this study, a group of researchers from reviewed more than a hundred scientific articles in an effort to encourage and enable further involvement of behavioral researchers in climate change science. They aimed to do so by providing the following: behavioral scenarios that could provide both short- and long-term paths to species’ persistence under future climates; a review of the ways in which animals react to extreme weather events and harsh climates; and immediate steps that animal behaviorists can take to begin to contribute to climate change biology and the practical task of helping wildlife populations remain viable.
Although many animals are able to adapt to different living conditions, those adaptations may involve costs, such as reduced foraging success or increased predation risk, negatively affecting population viability.
As a good example of this, the researchers highlight the case of bushy parasol tails in desert-dwelling rodents. Although shielding the animal from the scorching sun, they could also prevent them from effectively scanning the sky above for aerial predators, thus increasing the likelihood of being killed by a hawk whenever attempting to shade themselves. Although not lethal on a population scale, such trade-offs would probably result in smaller population sizes. On the other hand, populations whose individuals do not exhibit any behaviors helpful for surviving extreme weather will be quickly eliminated, if mortality due to climate change is greater than their reproduction rate.
The researchers highlight four types of extreme weather events that are particularly relevant to animal behavior research, as predicted to be more prevalent by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: an increased frequency and duration of heatwaves; an increase in the number of heavy rain events; greater risk of flooding; higher sea levels during storm surges.
Behavioral adaptations recorded in a wide range of species include evaporative and conductive body temperature management, altered nest architecture and placement, seeking temporary refuges, changing movement routes, adjusting dietary patterns and more. Behavior thought to allow survival in fire-prone habitats, for example, include fire detection using sound, sight, smoke, and infrared radiation cues, making and/or using a hole, burrow or shelter, maintaining areas of bare ground to prevent fuel accumulation, social communication and coordination of evasive movement and long-distance movements away from (or towards in case of predators) burned areas. Although seemingly impressive, much of the evidence for such behavioral responses to weather and climate is anecdotal or incidental.
The researchers are in no doubt that the lack of information on the behavioral responses of wild animals is at least partially due to the understandable unwillingness of scientists to expose animals to such threatening environments. Nevertheless, safe methods to collect data on how animals behave in ‘bad’ weather are available. Such data gathering may prove crucial in estimating what will happen to populations as these weather events become more common and severe in the future. Scientists could help identify the management bridges that need to be built to help populations survive long enough to have a chance to adapt to the changing environments.
Possible solutions include providing appropriate thermal refuges, supplying supplemental food, or even engaging in post-event predator control. However, for climate change-related behavioral science to pick up speed, the researchers urge institutional incentives for academics that reward not just grant-getting and publishing, but also the positive conservation outcomes of the work.
Long-term, post-event monitoring is one area of great potential. Among other benefits, such data could help set the baseline for deciding when markers of chronic stress in wild animals indicates a need to manage behavior and promote population recovery. Meanwhile, members of the public are encouraged to take part in structured citizen science projects by filming and uploading relevant surveillance recordings.
Animal advocates will surely feel concerned by the fact that we know next to nothing about how wild animals react to life-threatening weather events and, particularly, if they are able to adapt successfully and avoid extinction. Since it is well known that the public is deeply concerned about conservation and biodiversity issues, it could prove to be effective to advocate for higher participation in citizen science projects.