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Warming climate causing animals to shapeshift

Geelong – Climate change is not only a human problem, but animals are having to adapt to it as well.

Some warm-blooded animals are shapeshifting and getting larger beaks, legs, and ears to better regulate their body temperatures as the planet gets hotter, according to a Deakin University study in Australia.

A lot of the time when climate change is discussed people wonder if  humans can overcome the warming, or can technology solve it.

It’s high time humanity recognised that animals also have to adapt to these changes, but this is occurring over a far shorter timescale than would have occurred through most of evolutionary time, the study, just published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution says.

The climate change is heaping a whole lot of pressure on animals and while some species will adapt, others will not.

Climate change is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that’s been occurring progressively, so it is difficult to pinpoint just one cause of the shapeshifting, the report says.

These changes have been occurring across wide geographical regions and among a diverse array of species, so there is little in common apart from climate change.

Strong shapeshifting has particularly been reported in birds. Several species of Australian parrot have shown, on average, a four to 10 percent increase in bill size since 1871 and 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 increases in appendage size are so far quite small, less than 10 percent, so the changes are unlikely to be immediately noticeable.

However, prominent appendages such as ears are predicted to increase, so the planet may end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future.

The Deakin researchers intend to investigate shapeshifting in Australian birds first hand by 3D scanning museum bird specimens from the past 100 years.

It will give the team a better understanding of which birds are changing appendage size due to climate change and why.

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 researchers are not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving.