Climate Change Could See Elephant Ears Getting Bigger As Animals ‘Shape’ To Survive, Study Says

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Climate change could cause animals around the world to develop bigger ears, beaks and tails, according to a new study, as our hot planet forces them to quickly ‘shape-shift’ in order to survive.

Decades of monitoring animals’ adaptation to global warming have shown that, with a third of species potentially endangered, many are altering their breeding and migration patterns to avoid new levels of heat and, in some cases, , shrink to better regulate their body. temperatures.

In a phenomenon known as Allen’s Rule, animals in warmer climates tend to have larger appendages – such as ears, beaks, legs, and tails – which they can use to dispel disease. heat.

Although appendages often have less feathers or less fur than other body parts of birds and animals, they also have other advantages. For example, elephants can pump warm blood into their ears, which are filled with blood vessels, and beat them to disperse heat. The larger the appendix, the more heat can be lost.

In new research, scientists report finding “widespread evidence” of changes in the size of appendages in response to global warming – “from the Arctic to the tropics of Australia.”

Posted in the Trends in ecology and evolution journal, the study allowed scientists to analyze museum records on animal body proportions and to examine long-term analyzes of wild animals, which revealed many cases in which species’ appendages grew. were developed rapidly over a short period.

Although these cases of rapid ‘shape change’ have often previously been attributed to changes in habitat or diet, climate change is the ‘unifying variable’ that may explain why the changes are occurring in so many different species. across the world, lead author Sara Ryding told VICE.

“Most of the time when climate change is covered in the mainstream media, people wonder ‘can humans overcome this’ or ‘what technology can solve this problem,’ said Ms Ryding, a doctoral student in ornithology at Australian Deakin University.

“It is high time that we recognize that animals must adapt to these changes as well, but it is happening on a much shorter timescale than what would have happened for most of evolutionary time. The climate change that we have created is putting a lot of pressure on them, and while some species will adapt, others will not. “

The increases in appendix size seen so far “are quite small” at less than 10% and “are unlikely to be immediately noticeable,” Ms Ryding said.

“However, important appendages such as the ears are expected to increase – so we might end up with a live Dumbo in the not-so-distant future,” she added.

Most of the examples of shape change found by researchers were in birds. For example, the beaks of two Australian parrots – gang cockatoos and red-rumped parrots – have increased by 4-10% in size since 1871.

The changes are already happening in mammals too. For example, since 1950, Alaskan Masked Shrews have seen their tails and legs grow considerably since 1950, while the wings of large round-leaved bats have increased by 1.64 percent.

The study also postulated that the increase in extreme weather events – increasingly shown to be the result of climate degradation – could contribute to the rapid shape change of some species. The researchers pointed to the North American junco sparrow, whose bill size appeared to increase with extreme short-term temperatures.

Scientists hope their research could help predict which animals might be most sensitive to the rapid growth of appendages and how that might impact their larger ecosystems.

“Shape change doesn’t mean animals are dealing with climate change and all is well,” Ms. Ryding said.

“It just means that they evolve to survive there – but we don’t know what the other ecological consequences are of those changes, or in fact that all species are able to change and survive.”


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