How Quickly Can Species Adapt to Climate Change?

October 6, 2013

Anthropogenic climate change is predicted to dramatically alter biodiversity and species distributions around the globe, particularly if many species are unable to disperse to new habitats or evolve and adapt to new climatic conditions in their current habitat. But a fundamental question that has been debated is how quickly can species actually evolve and adapt to a changing climate?

In a recent paper, Ignacio Quintero (a Yale graduate student) and John Wiens offered an approximate answer. They measured the differences in climatic niches (preferred levels of temperature and precipitation) between extant (currently living) sister species, and then calculated approximate rates of climatic niche evolution based on the amount of time since the sister species diverged from each other. They did this for more than 500 vertebrate species and found that to be able to adapt to projected temperature and precipitation levels for the year 2100, some species would have to adapt and evolve 10,000 times faster than they had in the past. This is sobering news because it suggests that many species, if they cannot move to new habitats because of physical barriers or competition from other species, will be unable to keep up with climate change, leading to massive numbers of extinctions and large associated changes to ecosystem structure and function.

Quintero, I. and J.J. Wiens (2013) Rates of projected climate change
dramatically exceed past rates of climatic niche evolution among vertebrate
species. Ecology Letters 16:1095-1103.

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