standard Climate change causes species to move north and to higher elevations

A new study reveals how climate change is causing species in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere to move on average 12.2 metres higher in elevation per decade and northwards 17.6 kilometres per decade.  Species are moving the most in regions showing the highest levels of warming, but some are more influenced by climate change than others.  Authors of the study found that individual species vary greatly in their rates of change and that traits internal to a particular species need to be accounted for along with external factors other than climate change, such as habitat destruction.

Dr Ralf Ohlemüller, a co-author of the study who is an ecologist based at IHRR part of the programme of research Ecosystems and Climatic Change says:

We were able to calculate how far species might have been expected to move so that the temperatures they experience today are the same as the ones they used to experience, before global warming kicked in. Remarkably, species have on average moved towards the poles as rapidly as expected.

Map showing northern and southern temperate zones

The Comma Butterfly in the UK is one of many species moving north in response to climate change. Credit: Jim Asher, Butterfly Conservation

Researchers did a meta-analysis of 54 previous studies on the impact of climate change on the movement of more than 2000 plant and animal species, many of which came from different countries in Europe, including the UK, Finland and Portugal, but also parts of the US.  In the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere, temperature is an important controller of biodiversity patterns of the distribution of individual species.  While previous studies have observed changes in the elevation or latitude of species, this study reveals a statistical linkage between species’ rate of movement to higher elevations and latitudes and areas that have the highest levels of warming due to climate change.

Dr I-Ching Chen, first author of the study, with the Atlas Moth from Mt Kinabalu, Borneo, that is moving to higher elevations because of climate change.                Credit: Butterfly Conservation

A previous meta-analysis only considered British birds and European butterflies for latitudinal rates of change and Alpine herbs for changes in elevation, while this study was far more comprehensive including a far greater variety of species in different parts of the world such as different kinds of mammals, insects, plants and fish (a list of the numbers of different species included in the analysis is available here).  In the future, other data are needed from countries in the southern hemisphere and the tropics in order to develop a clear understanding of the global impact climate change has on the movement of different species.  Studying the impacts of climate change on the movement of species is important for understanding biodiversity as well as the role of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

For the latest results from this research read Climate-driven species migration: from source to sink and back.

Video interview on Youtube with Prof Chris Thomas, University of York about the study:

Science featured the research on their podcast series and also interviewed Prof Chris Thomas.

Further Reading

Rapid range shift of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science

Climate Change: Species climbing higher and migrating north, study says. Christian Science Monitor

In Warming World, Critters Run to the Hills. ScienceNOW

Mapping future climate space. IHRR

Hot wildlife reaches new heights. University of York Press Release

Chen IC, Hill JK, Ohlemüller R, Roy DB, & Thomas CD (2011). Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333 (6045), 1024-6 PMID: 21852500


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