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Polar bear inbreeding and penguin ‘divorces’: Weird ways climate change is affecting animal species


(NEW YORK) — The world’s biodiversity is constantly being threatened by warming temperatures and extreme changes in climate and weather patterns.

And while that “doom and gloom” is the typical discourse surrounding how climate change is affecting biodiversity, another interesting aspect of the warming temperatures is how different species have been adapting over the decades, as the warming progresses, experts say.

Species typically adapt in one of three ways, Morgan Tingley, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California Los Angeles, told ABC News. They shift their distribution, change spaces or move from one place to another when the region gets too hot (either to a cooler region to higher altitudes). There are also shifts in phenology, or the seasonal timing of biological events, such as when deer are born or when birds return from migration. And finally, the species themselves change, either through evolution or natural selection, Tingley said.

How the species are changing is the least well-studied, but more and more research is emerging to pinpoint climate change’s role in adaption, Tingley said.

The loss of biodiversity is complex — and the most direct impact humans have on it is through habitat loss, rather than climate change, according to the experts. But as more research emerges, the role of climate change is being considered as well.

“Climate change is like this global killer,” Maria Paniw, an ecologist at the Doñana Biological Station, is a public research institute in Seville, Spain, told ABC News. “In effect, it often makes all the other risks that animals face much worse.”

Here are some unusual ways climate change is affecting nature:

Tuberculosis risks in meerkats increasing

Higher temperature extremes may increase the risk of outbreaks of tuberculosis in Kalahari meerkats by increasing physiological stress, as well as the movement of males between group, according to a study published in Nature Monday.

As the Kalahari Desert in South Africa continues to warm, the meerkats become more physically stressed and therefore cannot wake up early to forage for most of the year, Paniw said. The heat, combined with drought conditions from decreasing rainfall amounts, results in the decreasing availability of food as well.

That widespread physical stress can lead to endemic diseases such as tuberculosis to end up in outbreaks, exacerbated by the fact that meerkats are a social species that interact in groups.

“Because of the physical stress involved and less food availability, unhealthy conditions, these endemic diseases can turn more frequently into severe outbreaks in desolate miracle groups in this new get groups,” Paniw said.

Similar behavior has been seen in squirrels, which, when infected with a bacterial infection, can spread it “more widely” in warmer conditions, she added.

Rising ‘divorce’ rates among albatrosses

Albatross penguins, a monogamous species famous for mating for life, are seeing higher “divorce” rates as temperatures warm, a study published in the Royal Society Journal in November found.

The rate of Black-browed albatross pairs that split up and and found new mates rose to 8% during years of unusually warm water temperatures, researchers who studied more than 15,000 albatross pairs in the Falkland Islands over 15 years found.

The previous rate of divorce, 1% to 3%, typically involved female penguins finding a new mate as a result of an unsuccessful breeding season, scientists said. But during the years of atypical warmth, breakups rose even among couples that successfully reproduced.

The research is the “first evidence of a significant influence of the prevailing environmental conditions on the prevalence of divorce in a long-lived socially monogamous population,” the authors concluded.

The findings will also provide “critical insight” into the role of the environment on divorce in other socially monogamous avian and mammalian populations, the researchers said.

Polar bears are inbreeding due to melting sea ice

Polar bear populations were found to have up to a 10% loss in genetic diversity over a 20-year period as a result of inbreeding due to habitat fragmentation, a recent study published in Royal Society Journals in September found.

Scientists studied in Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago on the Barents Sea, and found that the inbreeding in which the inbreeding occurred correlated with a “rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice.”

Simo Maduna, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research and author of the study, described the results were “alarming” and “surprising” to ABC News.

The lack of genetic diversity could also eventually lead to the species’ inability to produce fertile offspring or withstand disease, Maduna said.

“With genetic diversity, when the population becomes so small, you’ll find that there will be a higher chance of closely related individuals mating and producing offspring,” he said. “But with that comes a risk in the sense that some of the traits … that are recessive, will now basically be unmasked in the population.”

When gray seals give birth is changing

Researchers who monitored gray seals in the U.K.’s Skomer Marine Conservation Zone for three decades found that climate change has caused older seal mothers to give birth to pups earlier. The observation that favors the hypothesis that climate affects phenology, or the timing of biological events, by altering the age profile of the population, a study published November in the Royal Society Journals found.

In 1992, when the researchers first began surveying grey seal populations, the midpoint of the pupping season was the first week of October. By 2004, the pupping season had advanced three weeks earlier, to mid-September, according to the study.

Warmer years were also associated with an older average age of mothers, the scientists found. Gray seals typically start breeding around 5 years old and can continue for several decades after. But the older the seals got, the earlier they gave birth.

The changes were not isolated to the U.K., as there have been observable changes in the timing of seal life throughout the Atlantic and the world, according to the study.

Amazonian birds are shrinking

Birds in undisturbed areas of the Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world, are experiencing physical changes to dryer, hotter climates, according to research published in Science Advances in November.

Scientists who studied four decades of data on Amazonian bird species found that 36 species have lost substantial weight, some as much as 2% of their body weight every decade since 1980. In addition, all of the species showed a decrease in average body weight.

“Faced with a changing environment, biological responses of species are limited to extinction, distribution shifts, and adaptation,” the authors said. “For birds in lowland Amazonia, population trends for a subset of the community are not encouraging.”

Birds are considered by scientists to be a sentinel species, which indicate the overall health of an ecosystem. The precipitation in the region declined as average temperature rose — all during the study period.

Tingley, who studies birds, said a general hypothesis surrounding this phenomenon is that animals must shrink as temperatures rise to become more “thermo-efficient” and regulating body heat.

“Because as things get warmer, it’s basically more sort of thermo-efficient to have a smaller body size because you can dissipate heat more effectively,” he said.

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