Animals ‘shapeshifting’ in response to climate crisis, research finds

Researchers have found that animals are becoming more flexible due to the climate crisis.
Scientists discovered that warm-blooded animals are adapting to hotter temperatures by changing their physiology. To regulate their body temperature, they have larger ears, legs, and beaks.

Birds use their beaks to heat up, while mammals use their ears to distribute the warmth. Warmer climates may have evolved creatures with larger ears and beaks to remove heat faster. As the climate heats, these differences become more apparent.

Animals can become too hot and may die if they don't control their body temperature. If not covered with feathers, beaks aren't insulated and can become a source of heat exchange.

The size of the beaks of the mulga parrots (Psephotus variedus) has been growing. Photograph: Minden Pictures/Alamy

The journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution published the review. It found that these differences are especially pronounced in birds.

Sara Ryding, a bird researcher at Deakin University, was the author of the study. She said that shapeshifting does NOT mean animals are adapting to climate change.

They are simply evolving to survive, but they don't know the ecological consequences or if all species can change and survive.

Although scientists claim it is hard to determine the cause of shapeshifting due to climate change, they do know that it is something that the cases studied share across geographic regions and among a wide range of species.

You can think of several Australian parrot species that have seen a positive correlation between the summer temperature and their bill sizes since 1871.

Research on the North American dark eyed juncos, an endangered species of songbird, has shown a correlation between increased bill size, and extremes in short-term temperatures in cold environments.

Researchers also found that tail lengths in wood mice increased, while tails and legs of masked shrews increased. Warm climate bats had a larger wing area.

According to the paper, shapeshifting will continue as the climate warms. It states: Climate change is likely to increase temperatures, which will have an impact on the thermoregulatory requirements of animals.

Climate change could lead to larger appendages, which can be more efficient in heat dissipation, or relaxation of selection for smaller appendages. This could cause body heat to be lost in colder climates.

It has been proven that the great round-leaf bats wings are growing in size. Photograph by Nature Picture Library/Alamy

Ryding stated that although the changes are not significant, they could be larger as the planet heats up.

She said that the appendage sizes have increased by less than 10%, so it is unlikely that any changes will be noticeable immediately. However, the size of prominent appendages like ears is expected to rise, so we may end up with a live-action Dumbo sometime in the not too distant future.

Ryding will investigate shapeshifting in Australian birds by first-hand 3D scanning museum specimens of bird species from the past 100 year to determine which birds are experiencing changes in their appendages due to climate change.

Climate change is often discussed in mainstream media. People are wondering if humans can overcome it or what technology they can use to solve it. Ryding said that it is high time that we recognized the need for animals to adapt to these changes. However, this adaptation is taking place in a much shorter timeframe than what would have been possible over most of evolution.

Climate change is putting a lot of pressure on species. Some species will adapt to the changes, but others won't.

It is not clear if these changes will have an impact on other animals. For example, larger bills could have an effect on how birds eat. This is something scientists are planning to investigate in the future.

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