Climate change impact on Arctic mammals

Researchers from Umeå University in Sweden have discovered that mammals living in the Arctic and sub-Arctic land areas in northern Europe could be positively affected by climate change between now and 2080 – if they succeed in adjusting their geographic ranges. Presented in the journal PLOS ONE, the study showed how changing climates help drive shifts in species distributions and extinctions, and range contractions and expansions. The researchers postulate that such changes will only increase in the future. 

Predicted species richness in (sub)arctic Europe

Figure 1. Predicted species richness in (sub)arctic Europe.
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a) 2000, b) CGCM2 A2 scenario 2080; species are able to fully utilize their potential future range, c) CGCM2 B2 scenario 2080; species are able to fully utilize their potential future range, d) CGCM2 A2 scenario 2080; species are limited to areas where their current range and potential future range overlap, e) CGCM2 B2 scenario 2080; species are limited to areas where their current range and potential future range overlap. The maps are displayed in the Albers Equal Area projection for Europe. The inset shows the study region in red and the additional zone to include possible colonizers in the study in dark grey.

The Umeå researchers did not include animals found in the Arctic seas and islands in their assessment. According to the team, the chances of Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of land being affected by major changes in climate are high. They also believe that the natural ecology of these land masses will also be susceptible to these changes.

The researchers modelled the distribution of species, finding that the majority of mammals living in these specific areas will not suffer from the changes predicted for the next 68 years. Some, however, like the Arctic fox and the lemming, will not be so fortunate.

‘This will be the case only on the condition that the species can reach the areas that take on the climate these animals are adapted to,’ said Professor Christer Nilsson from the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science at Umeå University. ‘We maintain that it is highly improbable that all mammals will be able to do so, owing partly to the increased fragmentation of their living environments caused by human beings. Such species will reduce the extent of their distribution instead.’

The study also found that if climate change does not adversely impact most Arctic and sub-Arctic mammals, changes in the species mix could prove to play havoc with them instead. The researchers identified how predators and their potential prey could end up living in the same areas.

‘We further predict that large predators will increasingly coexist in the future,’ the authors wrote. ‘This may pose a threat to prey species, even to those that are currently assessed as «least concern» by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Both the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) are expected to expand their ranges.

‘We predict that these large predators will co-occur in a larger part of sub-Arctic Europe in the future than currently. This might affect the population abundance of common prey species like the European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), since percentage-wise, more of its geographic range is predicted to be occupied by both of these large predators in the future, and less of its range is predicted to be free of these predators.’

Reference: Hof AR, Jansson R, Nilsson C (2012) Future Climate Change Will Favour Non-Specialist Mammals in the (Sub)Arctics. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52574. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052574

Source: CORDIS, 18/january/2013

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