There seems to be a disciplinary adaptation gap between some climate scientists and “biodiversity” scientists on the one hand, and the disciplines involved in adaptation…fire science, plants, wildlife biologists and so on, on the other hand. One of the gaps is that organisms adapt. Critters and plants adapt, human beings adapt and we jointly adapt to each other.
There is the traditional genetic form of adaptation within species, and there are all kinds of adaptations beyond classical genetics.. behavioral, cultural, epigenetic. And since these adaptations can’t be modeled (since most of them are unknown) to climate and biodiversity modelers, they don’t exist. And yet.. in real life, and to certain disciplines, they do exist and are important.
Not to speak of humans.. so we have gaps like reading about crop improvement via new techniques like CRISPR, while at the same time climate modelers are predicting wheat yields in 2070. GAP! Yet among science institutions, it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job to notice gaps and attempt to fill them. I think because while the CRISPR people would easily say “hey we have no clue what’s going to happen by then”, climate scientists seem to spend a great deal of time making predictions and mostly get published if the outcomes are bad… seemingly completely regardless of any characterization of the many uncertainties at the level the CRISPR people and farmers deal with.
Here’s an example of the kind of study I’m talking about..with regard to biodiversity predictions:
A new study by University of Arizona researchers presents detailed estimates of global extinction from climate change by 2070. By combining information on recent extinctions from climate change, rates of species movement and different projections of future climate, they estimate that one in three species of plants and animals may face extinction.
So here are a few papers that talk about wildlife adaptation:
Gaynor and her colleagues noticed animals were becoming more active at night to avoid human disturbances. They have now done a meta-analysis of 76 studies of 62 mammals all around the world. Almost all are shifting to the night to avoid us…
On the other hand, the shift is helping animals survive alongside humans. In Chitwan in Nepal, lots of tigers are able to live near people by being more active at night.
In this sense, the shift to the night may be good. “It’s a way to share space on an increasingly crowded planet,” says Gaynor. “We take the day and they take the night.” Thanks to their nocturnal ancestors, many mammals still have plenty of the characteristics needed to be more active at night, she says. And they are likely to be evolving to be even better at it.
“I would expect that this is an incredibly strong selective force,” says Kate Jones of University College London, who has shown that mammals only became active during the daytime after dinosaurs vanished.
Second, we’re finding out that habitats where critters are currently found might not be the only ones they can live in, maybe not even their preferred. This is in New Scientist by Isabelle Groc. Hopefully, there isn’t a paywall, it’s from 2018.
The story of California’s sea otters is not a one-off. Earlier this year, Silliman and his colleagues revealed a wider trend in a paper aptly titled “Are the ghosts of nature’s past haunting ecology today?“. As a result of conservation efforts, a variety of predators are reappearing in ecosystems they were pushed out of by hunting and development. “It is an exciting time for ecologists,” says Carswell, “because these species are coming back to these ecosystems from which they have been absent for many human generations and they are putting their house back in order.”
Mountain lions are another example. Unsurprisingly, we tend to associate them with mountains. But historical records show that in Patagonia they once lived in open grasslands. As sheep farming became established in South America, they were persecuted – along with their prey, a kind of llama called a guanaco. As a result, mountain lions survived only in the remote Andes away from humans. But in the past 20 years, sheep ranching has declined. “We started to see a change,” says Mark Elbroch from conservation society Panthera. “The mountain lions that had been removed from the open grassland began to come back out of the mountains at the same time as the guanaco was beginning to move back into the grassland.”
Third, critters are moving to places where they didn’t formerly live as far as we know. In this case, apparently without direct human assistance. This story is from Wudan Yan in High Country News (also 2018)
Otters were once unheard of in the Beartooths. In fact, there’s no evidence they’re native to this high alpine environment at all; their arrival appears to be part of the sweeping changes humans have brought to the plateau. In the 1960s, zoologists Donald Pattie and Nicolaas Verbeek spent years surveying the various mammals found in the Beartooths. They found creatures as small as dwarf shrews and as large as grizzly bears and mountain goats, but no otters. Continued but sporadic surveys done by field technicians and researchers at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in the 1990s yielded no sign of river otters, either. But for the last decade or so, there have been a few anecdotal reports from Cross, his colleagues, and some of the locals who frequent the plateau.
This of course raises philosophical issues as on this Yellowstone Ecological Research Center website
Are they “invasive species” in this alpine environment, impacting native carnivores like red foxes and American martens, or adaptive survivors seeking a climate refugium (not to mention food bonanza) at higher elevations?
I’m not suggesting we blow through wildlife habitat and ignore their needs. But when we hear predictions about the future, especially the distant future, even by scientists, I think we need to acknowledge that no one actually knows what will happen. And the people working at the interface of people and wildlife are actually the most knowledgeable about them, and how to work toward our continuing coexistence.