Study warns that many species are shrinking as a result of climate change. Scientists predict damaging consequences that will impact ecosystems and human livelihoods across the globe.
It is now widely accepted that climate change presents a significant threat to the Earth’s ecosystems. Over the last 100 years, the planet has experienced a 1°C rise in temperature, and a further 7°C rise is predicted by 21001. A large amount of climate change research has been concentrated on distribution and behaviour shifts in species, however, more recently efforts have shifted towards the effects on growth and development2.
The study from Professor Bickford and Dr Sheridan (National University of Singapore)2 highlights the growing amount of evidence which describes the effect of climate change on species size. Species are exhibiting smaller sizes and slower growth rates in response to increased temperature and higher rainfall variability.
The evidence for this shrinking effect is extensive. Fossil records have demonstrated similar effects in previous periods of global warming, where both marine and terrestrial species decreased in size2. Most notably during the warming phase of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), evidence shows a range of soil-burrowing invertebrates decreasing in size by 50-75%3. During the PETM temperatures increased by 3-7°C and rainfall decreased by 40%, so there is scope for comparisons as this is similar to the current predictions for the next 100 years2. Current climate change, however, is occurring at a much faster rate than during the PETM, so shrinkage effects may be accelerated3.
Experimental and comparative studies show that organisms across many taxa are smaller when they are exposed to conditions akin to climate change. For instance, considerable growth rate reductions have been observed in species as a result of water acidification (a consequence of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide)2. Red algae mass exhibit a 250% loss under acidic conditions4 and calcifying organisms such as corals become smaller and can even lose their ability to form exoskeletons5. Researchers have discovered that for a range of plant species, each degree of temperature increase can reduce the aboveground biomass by 3-17%6. Further comparative studies have also demonstrated that decreased rainfall can lead to species shrinkage in tropical trees7, mammals8 and amphibians9.
In addition to this, an increasing number of observational studies show that anthropogenic climate change over the last century has already caused species shrinkage. This is true of several mammals (including polar bears10, red deer11 and woodrats12) and birds (including passerines13 and gulls14) in response to increased temperature, and of many reptiles (Including tortoises15 and iguanas16) in response to decreased rainfall. Plant species show a decrease in size in response to both increased temperature and decreased rainfall, thus meaning that trees and plants are getting smaller in areas that are becoming drier and warmer17.
Scientists have suggested several explanations for species shrinking; however Sheridan & Bickford (2011)1 suggest that water and nutrient limitation and changes in metabolic rate of ectotherms are the most significant factors. Soil nutrients can decrease as regions become drier (more fires lead to nitrogen loss) and wetter (nutrient leaching), and decreased rainfall leads to reduced respiration. This can limit plant growth; effects which can cascade through a food web and disrupt the ecosystem. Metabolic rate is proportional to temperature18, thus growth is limited unless an organism can meet its metabolic needs at increased temperatures. An extensive range of species will be subject to these effects if they are not able to rapidly adapt to climate change. Natural selection favours smaller individuals in these conditions, which could eventually lead to the evolution of smaller species2.
Trends in the shrinking of species are variable and difficult to predict. It is thought that the biggest dilemma will be the differential responses amongst species, as this could disrupt the balance of whole ecosystems and have synergistic negative impacts on biodiversity2. One concern is that if producers shrink at a quicker rate than consumers, this will put pressure on the consumers and could lead to increased mortality, disease susceptibility and reduced reproductive output. Such effects could destabilize ecosystem interactions and threaten populations2. Also, organisms with shorter generation times may be more resilient to climate change, as they are able to adapt more quickly than those with longer generation times, creating further ecosystem disparity17.
A major threat to species is extinction and thus loss of biodiversity. Species with narrow temperature tolerance and/or low population levels are the most susceptible2. Amphibians and other ectotherms which become smaller to offset the effects of increased metabolism might become more susceptible to dessication2.
Marine systems are also likely to be severely affected, particularly because of varied rates of response to climate change which could destabilize ecosystems2. For instance, calcifying organisms have exhibited differing responses to acidification.
Studies have shown that clams and oysters decrease in size, whilst lobsters and crabs increase19. Furthermore, warmer waters cannot hold as much dissolved oxygen, so organisms will encounter metabolic challenges2.
The impact of shrinkage on human livelihoods across the globe is arguably the most worrying consequence of species shrinkage. Fish stocks are expected to decrease in size and number owing to climate change, and this will impact the 1 billion people who rely on fish as their primary food resource20. Crops on land will also be affected as areas become drier or as rainfall variability increases, potentially reducing the length of growth seasons21. This will place a huge strain on countries which depend on crops to feed the population. Water limitation is also expected to be a severe issue in areas such as South Asia, where population growth rates are exploding21.
The consequences of species shrinkage are potentially widespread and devastating, and the publication of this study has rightfully attracted the attention of scientists, media and the public. We must now work together to fully understand this issue and put in place steps to reduce the potential damage to humans and animals alike.
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