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Warming drives animals to higher ground, latitudes, study finds

By Matt Smith, CNN
  • New research finds animals moving toward poles and uphill faster than previously thought
  • Scientists reviewed data going back to the early 20th century for the study
  • Some species "will probably be extinct in the near future," one researcher says

(CNN) -- A warming climate is driving animal species to higher latitudes and higher ground at a rate far faster than previously believed, researchers from Britain and Taiwan reported Thursday.

The researchers found habitats for a variety of species -- from English songbirds to Malaysian moths -- had shifted either uphill or away from the equator by an average of 17 kilometers (nearly 11 miles) per decade since the 1970s. That's nearly three times as fast as had previously been believed, said I-Ching Chen, the study's lead author.

The study was released by the journal Science, which is publishing the findings this week. It not only indicates faster changes, but also points more directly to climate change as the cause than did previous studies, said Chen, a researcher at Taiwan's Academia Sinica.

Shifts in habitat were greater in regions where temperatures have gone up more, she said.

"The relationship between distribution change and temperature change is significantly correlated," Chen said. "I think that's strong evidence that global warming caused this change."

The migration isn't universal, said Chris Thomas, a biologist at Britain's University of York and the project's leader. About a quarter of the roughly 1,500 species examined in the study moved toward warmer latitudes, in some cases due to the loss of habitat or man-made obstacles such as belts of farmland that prevented them from following other animal life north.

But on average, animal life is pulling back from the warmest regions of the planet "much faster than was previously recognized," he said. And many mountain-dwelling species like the American pika, a rabbit-like mammal native to the North American west, are being forced to a limited range of higher ground.

Chen, who studied the geometrid moths of Borneo's Mount Kinabalu in 2007, said the habitat of those insects had retreated by an average of 67 meters (220 feet) uphill since the last major study, in the mid-1960s.

"They have nowhere to go, and they will probably be extinct in the near future," she said.

Thomas said scientists still need a better understanding of why the effects vary so greatly. But from a public policy standpoint, the findings suggest time to save some of those threatened species is running out.

"We are now in a position where we have to manage change to environmental systems rather than try to keep them the way they were," he said.

Scientists compared data from studies as far back as the early 20th century for this report, Thomas said.

"This gives you a more robust estimate of what change is taking place than any individual study," he said.