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Science: Species’ Ranges Are Shifting Faster Than Expected in Warming Climate

Many different species of plants and animals have been moving higher in elevation and farther away from the equator to escape the Earth’s warming climate. Now, new research shows that this phenomenon is occurring at much faster rates than previously realized.

I-Ching Chen from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan and colleagues from the United Kingdom have compiled data from around the world—particularly in Europe and North America—to show that plants and animals have been climbing to higher ground twice as fast as previous analyses had predicted. They’ve also been moving away from the equator toward higher latitudes to beat the heat, at a rate three times faster than researchers earlier thought they would.

The new evidence of these rapid range shifts is published in the 19 August issue of the journal Science.

Chen and her colleagues say that the plant and animal species that have shifted their range the most have done so in regions of the world that have experienced the most warming.

“We looked at a number of studies that have been published to date,” said Chris Thomas from the University of York in the United Kingdom, a co-author of the Science report. “The results of these 23 latitudinal studies and 31 studies of elevation are fairly comparable. For each of them, we took the average change—of species either moving uphill or toward the Earth’s poles—and then found, either from the original studies or from climate data that is available, the amount of warming that had taken place during those studies.”

Chris Thomas of the University of York discusses the Science report.


[Video © University of York]

According to the researchers, plant and animal species are now shifting to higher elevations at an average rate of 36.1 feet (11.0 meters) per decade, and they’re moving to higher latitudes at about 10.5 miles (16.9 kilometers) per decade.

However, these researchers also say that individual species are shifting their ranges at very different rates.

“Each individual species has a series of physiological and ecological requirements,” said Thomas. “And from the climate change point of view, it makes sense to relate these range shifts to the changing climate. But some species are more sensitive to harsh winters than summer droughts and the rate of warming is going to mean different things for those different species.”

“Habitat loss, nitrogen deposition, and other pollutants cause species to shift their ranges too,” Thomas added. “Only when you look at the averages of very large numbers of species can you begin to see their relationship to climate change.”

The scientists suggest their new findings will help other researchers to better understand the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

“The rapid rates of response we are seeing lead to concerns over the species that are perhaps restricted to mountains and in decline. The rate at which they’re being threatened is likely to increase with more warming,” Thomas said.

“But, at this point, we’re not sure exactly what to do to minimize their risks,” he added. “We need a better scientific understanding of the large amount of variation we see among the different species.”

“The patterns of change are so widespread and convincing that we have to appreciate them in terms of conservation and management,” Thomas concluded. “We can’t act as if things aren’t changing.”


Read the abstract, “Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming,” by I-Ching Chen and colleagues.

Listen to a Science Podcast interview with with Chris Thomas.