• Climate change already has serious impacts for many species, including causing shifts in where species can live, reductions in the number of individuals in a population, changes in morphology and more.
  • The biological and spatial traits of some species makes them at higher risk of experiencing negative impacts from climate change.
  • It is predicted that 47% of mammal species and 23.4% of bird species on the threatened species list have already been negatively impacted by climate change.

Take Home Message

Many threatened species are already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change. We need to be working harder to create a safe climate for non-human animals.

Paper's Stats

Animal Status

No animals were harmed for this research.

The morphology, behaviour, and adaptability of a species evolves to suit specific environments. And the combination of these traits will determine where a species can live, something called the species ecological niche. When a species’ environment changes beyond the limits of its ecological niche, the species will either adapt, move or die. When environmental change occurs the traits a species has will also influence their capacity to respond to the change.

Right now, climate change is negatively impacting species all over the world because it causing significant disruption and changes to environments. Research has shown that for animals, rapid anthropogenic climate change is causing shifts in species ranges, reductions in populations sizes, changes in morphology and more.

There are hundreds of studies reporting the impact of climate change on animal species, but no study has figured out how many species in total are threatened by climate change. This is exactly what a bunch of researchers attempted to do in a recent publication in the Journal Nature Climate Change. They also wanted to identify the traits that put species most at risk of climate change.

How did they do it?

First off, they limited the study to looking at mammal and bird species. Then went and found lots of studies that recorded species responses to climate change. This included 70 studies with 120 mammal species represented and 66 studies with 569 bird species represented. For each of the species they recorded it’s response to climate change, which could be a negative, positive, unchanged or a mixed response. They also collected information on each species biological and spatial traits in order to determine which traits were associated with negative responses to climate change.

With all of this data they used some clever statistics to determine which biological and spatial traits were most associated with a negative response to climate change. Using this data they create a predictive model to determine how likely other mammal and bird species were to be negatively impacted by climate change.

Predictions were based on the assumption that species with similar biological and spatial traits would experience the same impacts from climate change. Predictions were made for 873 mammal species and 1,272 birds species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List (a list of all the threatened species in the world).

What did they find?

They showed that climate change has negatively impacted 38.3% of mammals and 20.9% of birds they could get data for..

Mammals are at higher risk of experiencing negative impacts from climate change if they are non-burrowing, have experienced large changes in temperature across their range in the last 60 years, and their ranges have low variation in precipitation from season to season (i.e. difference in rainfall between summer and winter). Mammals with a specialized diet also had higher probability of experiencing negative impacts from climate change.

Birds are at higher risk of experiencing negative impacts from climate change if they experience large changes in temp across their range in the last 60 years, live at high altitudes, and their ranges have low variation in temperature from season to season. They’re also at greater risk if they experience relatively high maximum temperatures in their breeding areas. In non-breeding areas they are at higher risk if they have low dispersal distances, have longer generation times, experience reduced precipitation from season to season or live in restricted altitudinal ranges (e.g. mountain tops). The predictive model suggested that about 47% (414 species) of threatened mammal species and 23.4% (298 species) of threatened birds species have experienced some kind of negative impact of climate change, even if only in one population of the species.

Of the predicted impacts, only 2 of the 11 mammal orders surveyed experienced mostly positive impacts, these were rodents and insectivores (i.e. animals that eat insects). Probably because they are burrowing animals, generalist and have short generation times. Whereas primates, proboscidea (e.g. elephants) and marsupials (e.g. kangaroos) have the highest predicted number of species impacted by climate change.

For birds, 3 of 19 orders, the Anseriformes (e.g. ducks, geese), Charadriiformes (e.g. gulls, snipes) and Cuculiformes (e.g. cuckoo), had more than half their species predicted to experience negative impacts from climate change.

What does it mean?

This paper paints a pretty grim picture for many species around the world and highlights the types of species and places that may suffer the most from climate change.

What is worrying is that these predictions are based on current recorded impacts, and our records will be far from comprehensive. Research on animals is often biased to particular species, whether for practical or other reasons. In this study a list of the number of species represented in each taxonomic order shows some clear gaps in the data (see supplementary table 8 & 9). It’s quite possible that the impacts reported here are an underestimate of what is really going on.

The other particularly troubling issue is that the papers predictions are based on the impacts recorded up to this point. It is not able to account for the worsening conditions that species will experience as global temperatures increase. As temperatures increase climate impacts will become more severe and it’s likely that even more species will be impacted.

A call to action for vegans.

I would imagine that the majority of vegans will be upset by the prospect that 47% of threatened mammal species will be negatively impacted by climate change. As people who hope to create a better world for animals, I hope this motivates us to act more urgently on climate change.

Being vegan is only one part of saving the billions of animals being impacted by climate change. If we are truly interested in saving non-human animals we will need to advocate for stronger and urgent action on climate in all areas. That means going zero emissions yesterday, ending animal agriculture and working on drawdown to achieve a safe climate for non-human animals. And we need to do it all very quickly!

Post by

Adam with his beautiful cat Fabi

Dr Adam Cardilini

I’m a scientist, teacher and activist. My training is in ecological and environmental science, but I love all science and enjoy sharing it with others.

Title: Species’ traits influenced their response to recent climate change

Authors: Michela Pacifici, Piero Visconti, Stuart H. M. Butchart, James E. M. Watson, Francesca M. Cassola and Carlo Rondinini

Journal: Nature Climate Change

Date Published: February 13, 2017


Paper Access

Behind paywall

Research Type

Peer-reviewed research

Accessing Research

If you can’t access one of the papers that is presented on VeganSci because it’s behind a paywall try emailing the corresponding author directly and asking nicely for a copy. Most people will be more than happy to share their research with you.