Many Species Will Have To Evolve 10,000 Times Faster To Adapt To Climate Change

Written by Katie Valentine

Climate change is moving too quickly for many vertebrate species to adapt, a new study has found. The study, published in the journal Ecology Letters, found species would have to evolve 10,000 times faster than they have in the past in order to keep up with the earth’s rapidly changing climate, a rate of evolution that the study’s authors say is “largely unprecedented based on observed rates.”

Researchers examined the evolutionary trees of 17 families of the major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, including frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, crocodilians, birds and mammals. They looked at when species split off into new species in the past, and what was happening climatically in their niche environment when they did so. They compared that, in turn, to the rates of climate change scientists predict through 2100.

“We found that on average, species usually adapt to different climatic conditions at a rate of only by about 1 degree Celsius per million years,” researcher John J. Wiens, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of Arizona, told the UA News Service. “But if global temperatures are going to rise by about 4 degrees over the next hundred years as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, that is where you get a huge difference in rates. What that suggests overall is that simply evolving to match these conditions may not be an option for many species.”

Though some of the 540 species studied may be able to change their habitat ranges — moving north as climate warms, for example — or persist as a whole even if several populations die out, extinction is a real threat for many of them. These extinctions could in turn affect other species that may not be directly impacted by changing temperatures themselves. In a previous study, Wiens and co-authors found that declines and extinctions of species are often due to changes in their interactions with other species. Even a certain species moving north could have big consequences for existing native species — the displaced organism could out-compete the native wildlife for food and habitat, leading, ultimately, to population extinction.

It’s a long and widely-held position in science that evolution moves slowly, taking hundreds, thousands or even millions of years, but other previous studies have challenged that belief — a 2008 study found lizards introduced to a remote island in the 1970s underwent dramatic physical changes in just a few decades, and a 2006 study found that a species of Galapagos finch developed a smaller beak in just 20 years.

It’s been unclear so far, however, how exactly the Earth’s wildlife will react to climate change, but the initial findings haven’t been promising. A recent study found that small birds, like the great tit, might have the most chance of adapting to a changing climate, but another report found that migratory birds, which are often dependent on phenology changes — set times for spring bud burst and insect hatchings, for example — are highly threatened by climate change. The IPCC predicts that between 40 and 70 percent of species could go extinct if temperatures rise by more than 3.5 degrees Celsius, and a recent study found that, when CO2 levels doubled towards the end of the Triassic Period, three-quarters of all Earth’s species died off.

This post was originally published at ClimateProgress.

Photo from Thinkstock


Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobets5 years ago

Thank you

Isabel T.
Isabel T.5 years ago

Although it is true that species are at a high risk of extinction, there is still hope. Indeed, the species can move to warmer climates, but they can also buffer the effects of climate change and adapt. Even though predictions suggest that temperature will rise much faster in the future, the result might not only be extinction, because different species or even the same species can respond differently to climate change. A part of these species might not survive and go extinct but there is still a very big part, if we look at it at a relative point of view, that can escape warming and become resilient. That means, there are several predictions that may be overestimating the vulnerability of species to climate change. Also, natural selection plays an important role in preserving the species as well. In the example with the Galapagos finches, it shows that the finches can evolve, changing their beak sizes because smaller beaks increased their fitness during drought.

Mark D.
Mark D.5 years ago

Consider that styrofoam cup in the ocean. Styrofoam won't break down for a million years. A million years is the minimum of what it will take for the abused earth to recover something of its former glory after humans die in their own polluted sewer. It will actually take quite a bit longer than that since the earth's plates will have to move over each other to finally remove all traces of the human virus.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Shari Rasmussen
Shari F5 years ago

Articles like this will become more common as time goes and the effects of climate change become more apparent. However, there are things we can do right now head off the worst of it. Climate change is driven by the need for fuels for an ever increasing world population. We need to start thinking seriously about how many people the planet, and each country, can actually support and ways of stabilising the global population. This is the only way we will fin a way out of the current extinction crisis.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you ClimateProgress, for Sharing this!

Mary Furlong
Mary Furlong5 years ago

Our precious wildlife is being assaulted on all fronts. Climate change, destruction of habitat, wildlife 'management', desertification, conflict with human populations, hunting, pesticides which work their way up the food chain...the list goes on and on. I fear the future is bleak.

Lynne B.
Lynne Buckley5 years ago

Very disturbing

Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege5 years ago

sad but not surprising.

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard5 years ago

very sad,thank you