Climate changing faster than animals evolve

The climate is changing faster than the planet's plants and animals can adapt. (AFP)

The climate is changing faster than the planet's plants and animals can adapt. (AFP)

Plants and animals have historically evolved to survive in niche environments. The slow change in their environment allowed this to be a gradual process. In times when the change was too quick, they could not adapt and were wiped out – like dinosaurs, which could not adapt to rapid change and were replaced by smaller species. 

A worry for modern climate change is the rate of change.
With temperature changes, all sorts of other things in the global environment are shifting. And in research published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology Letters, the team said animals would have to evolve 10 000 times faster than they normally did to survive.

"Adaptation to projected changes in the next 100 years would require rates that are largely unprecedented," it said. 

The research looked at the speed of adaptation of 540 species – from amphibians to birds and mammals – and concluded that, on average, plants and animals adapted to temperature changes of around 1C every millennia. The change was slow because shifts were generational and their surrounding conditions also changed slowly.  

With the current burning of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases, temperatures are predicted to rise a minimum of 2C in this century.

Humans destroying natural habitats
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the United Nations body tasked with collating all the research on climate change – predicted in its last report that temperatures could go up by 4C by the end of the century. 

The research falls into line with other research that warns that humans might be driving the sixth mass extinction. The last five occurred in the last 540-million years. The last one was at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65-million years, which killed off the dinosaurs.

It is not only climate change that is driving the extinction. Humans are also destroying natural habitats, introducing alien diseases, and hunting and consuming to such an extent that births cannot keep up with deaths.  

The Red List, run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, currently lists 20 000 species of plant and animal that are at high risk of extinction in the wild. 

Sipho Kings

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