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Could Climate Change Affect Animals’ Shape? It Seems So!

By: Inas Essa

There are some phenomena and incidents that not only affect the surrounding environment, but their impact reaches even farther. Climate change is considered one of the most serious environmental dilemmas that have affected the shape of our lives as humans, and lately, new research has indicated that this effect has extended to the Animal Kingdom.

Bird researcher Sara Ryding of Deakin University in Australia studied how animals shape-shift in response to climate change and global warming and the results pronounced a positive link.



Not Just a Human Problem

The new research published in the Trends in Ecology and Evolution journal has found that some “warm-blooded” animals are shapeshifting; getting larger beaks, legs, and ears in response to climate warming and to better regulate temperature to survive.

The author of the study indicates that shapeshifting does not mean that animals are coping with climate change, but that they are evolving to survive it. Yet, there are other ecological consequences of these changes and whether they could change to survive or not is still unknown.

“The climate change that we have created is heaping a whole lot of pressure on them, and while some species will adapt, others will not.” Says Ryding. She also noted that this change has been occurring across wide geographical regions, among diverse species, and over a far shorter timescale than would have occurred through most of the evolutionary time. She also indicated that, since climate change has been happening progressively, it is difficult to pinpoint just one cause of the shapeshifting.



More Evident in Birds

The review mentions that shapeshifting has been strongly pronounced in birds as several species of Australian parrot have shown; on average, a 4–10% increase in bill size since 1871, and this is positively correlated with the summer temperature each year. Also, North American dark-eyed juncos, a type of small songbird, had a link between increased bill size and short-term temperature extremes in cold environments.

Additionally, changes in mammalian species have been reported; researchers have reported tail length increases in wood mice and tail and leg size increases in masked shrews. “The increases in appendage size we see so far are quite small—less than 10%—so the changes are unlikely to be immediately noticeable,” says Ryding. “However, prominent appendages such as ears are predicted to increase—so we might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future.”

This shapeshifting resulted in larger appendages, which facilitates efficient heat dissipation. Some creatures in warmer climates have historically evolved to have larger beaks or ears to mitigate heat more easily; otherwise, they would overheat and die.

“Shapeshifting does not mean that animals are coping with climate change and that all is ‘fine’,” says Ryding; “It just means they are evolving to survive it—but we are not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving”.



Animals Shapeshifting Video