Northern species most vulnerable to global warming, temperate species most adaptable

"We ran the study for a long time and under realistic ecological conditions, so it provides a unique insight into how acclimation happens in practice," researcher Victor Nilsson-Örtman said.
By Brooks Hays  |  Nov. 16, 2017 at 3:54 PM
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Nov. 16 (UPI) -- New research suggests plants and animal species living closer to the poles are most likely to be threatened by climate change, while those in temperate climes will be better able to adapt.

The hypothesis -- presented this week in the journal The American Naturalist -- is the opposite of the conclusions drawn by previous studies.

Researchers have previously argued animals living closer to the poles are better able to adapt to shifting temperatures as a result of experiencing more drastic seasonal changes. But new work suggests the physiology of temperate species is better able to adapt to and withstand temperature variability.

"Seasonal temperature changes are quite marked at intermediate latitudes, but they happen relatively slowly. In this type of climate zone, acclimation is the most effective, as acclimation is often quite a slow process," Viktor Nilsson-Örtman, biologist at Lund University in Sweden, said in a news release.

The findings could alter the priorities set by conservationists as they consider which species are likely to be most threatened by climate change, and thus, warrant greater protections.

"High-latitude species could have a less flexible physiology than previously thought and thus be more vulnerable to climate change," Nilsson-Örtman said.

Nilsson-Örtman and his colleague Frank Johansson, an ecologist at Uppsala University, arrived at their conclusions after tracking the adaptability of two damselfly species in the lab. One of the damselflies hailed from northern Sweden, while the other was native to Central Europe.

In the lab, the researchers replicated the climate variability experience by each species. The Swedish damselfly was subjected to more abrupt shifts, while the Central European species experience more gradual change.

Regardless of whether the temperatures were cooling or warming, scientist found the Central European species of damselfly was superior at acclimation.

"Our study shows that acclimation works best at intermediate latitudes," Nilsson-Örtman said. "We now need to study more species from across the globe to see if they do in fact become less adept at acclimating nearer the poles."

The researchers claim the false conclusions of previous studies were caused by imprecise lab simulations. Most studies only observed species across short time frames using rapid changes in temperatures.

"We ran the study for a long time and under realistic ecological conditions, so it provides a unique insight into how acclimation happens in practice," Nilsson-Örtman said.

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