What changes are happening in animals due to climate change?

Climate change affects not only humans but also animals. In adapting to a warming planet, some warm-blooded animals are shapeshifting and getting larger beaks, legs and ears to better regulate their body temperatures (Trends in Ecology and Evolution).

Strong shapeshifting has particularly been reported in birds. Several species of Australian parrot have shown, on average, a 4%-10% increase in bill size since 1871. This is positively correlated with the summer temperature each year. 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. There have also been reported changes in mammalian species. Researchers have reported tail length increases in wood mice and tail and leg size increases in masked shrews.

The researchers are next planning to investigate shapeshifting in Australian birds first-hand by 3D-scanning museum bird specimens from the past 100 years.

“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 bird researcher Sara Ryding of Deakin University in Australia Ryding in a press release. “However, prominent appendages such as ears are predicted to increase.”

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

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