New research is trying to answer the question: are animals adjusting to climate change as well as humans?
Michael Dillon is a professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming and published a recent paper looking into the issue as a way to determine the longevity of certain species.
“Organism response to climate change is a pretty big deal,” he said. “We really haven’t looked into [this subject] much, so we got really excited about saying, ‘Hey, this is something we should be looking at as scientists.’”
Dillon says while the research has not revealed any answers, it has given insight into how certain animals adapt. He found that the ways birds construct their nests, spiders construct their webs, and termites construct their tunnels change based on the weather they experience.
Perhaps they build them in a certain area of a tree that receives more shade, or they use different materials that can allow for more ventilation to warmer temperatures due to climate change.
In some cases, Dillon says, animals have shifted their breeding habits to match earlier springs, but it comes at a consequence.
“They really only do that in response to the initial conditions they face when they first arrive to nest somewhere,” said Dillon. “Even though temperatures change in a season, if they go to nest again, they still respond as if they’re responding to the initial conditions.”
The fear is not all animals adapt this way or that some animals might not adapt fast enough.
A study published in Nature Communications in 2019 found that in the last 50 years birds have laid their eggs about two weeks earlier than before, due to the timeliness of certain warmer weather events, but that still lags behind the pace at which the caterpillars they prey on have changed their mating habits.
If the birds do not catch up, says Dillon, those eggs might hatch after the caterpillars have evolved and they could starve.
“You know, we call it plasticity, but you might think of it as flexibility in behaviors; the way in which organisms, animals, in particular, change what they’re doing in response to the local conditions that they experience,” explained Dillon.