How the animal world is adapting to climate change

HURRICANE LIZARDS AND PLASTIC CALAMAR The heavy and fascinating biology of climate change By Thor Hanson When I left Canada for the Uni...


HURRICANE LIZARDS AND PLASTIC CALAMAR
The heavy and fascinating biology of climate change
By Thor Hanson

When I left Canada for the United States in 1987, I had never seen or heard a red-bellied woodpecker, which at the time was a rare wanderer in southern Ontario. Today, they are well established here, and I have met several since my return to Canada in 2018.

It’s no mystery why the Red-bellied Woodpeckers advance north. They are responding to global warming. To which one could say: “Very well, so much the better for them!” But in an interconnected world, where the fate of one species is inextricably linked with the fortunes of another, rapid change always has consequences. In an age when the discourse on climate change focuses primarily on its causes, its effects on weather, and our so far timid efforts to tackle the problem, it’s good to see a book about how animals and plants react and go in the middle of the flow.

Hungry polar bears forced to swim during melting ice have become an evocative symbol of global warming. But as Thor Hanson reveals in “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid,” there are more subtle and less noticed dramas.

Take, for example, what is called the escalator to extinction, a phenomenon as sad as it is insidious. Patterns of temperature and humidity change with altitude, as do the species that inhabit each terrain. On a warming planet, animals and plants that have adapted to particular altitudes are forced to climb until they reach the top and, with nowhere to go, perish. Studies have documented this effect on birds, moths and tree seedlings, and it seems likely that other life forms, including mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, are vulnerable to this upward migration to the sea. ‘oversight. With 25 to 85% of the world’s species currently moving, one wonders if the hottest regions of the planet will become arid lands, devoid of all life, like the “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico, which covers somewhere about 7,000 square miles.

Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, this is not a depressing book. Award-winning biologist and author whose early work focused on bees, feathers, seeds and gorillas, Hanson is an affable guide and storyteller, with a knack for analogy, a sense of humor and curiosity. naturalness of a scientist. In a compact chemistry lesson using a jar of pickles and a lighted match, he and his son, Noah, perform an experiment to demonstrate the power of carbon dioxide. On another occasion, he picks up his ax on a dead pine tree in his yard to try to find out if his tree is being attacked by destructive bark beetles.

Elsewhere, Hanson points to the ubiquity of carbon dioxide, its gradual underground conversion to fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), and its much faster release into ecosystems when we burn these fuels. In the oceans, acidification corrodes and weakens the protective shells of tiny mollusks essential to marine food ecosystems, and causes sensory confusion in fish that depend on water chemistry to find mates, meals, homes and avoid predators. When coral reefs shrink, it not only reduces food, but also the cover of reef dwellers.

In this deteriorating world, it takes a certain evolutionary agility for a species to avoid losing its grip on life, sometimes literally. An experiment with anole lizards demonstrates rapid natural selection favoring feet and toes better able to cling to twigs and branches during severe storms. The small reptiles cling to a stick while being subjected to close-range blasts from a leaf blower. I don’t imagine the anoles enjoyed being subjected to near hurricane-force winds (no matter how loud!), But I was delighted to see that they were all sent back into the sea. nature, apparently unharmed.

If improving your grip isn’t on your to-do list, maybe changing your wardrobe is. In Finland, the once rare brown tawny owl now overtakes the more typical gray owl due to declining snow cover. I remembered when as a young child my father explained to me how pepper butterflies in London, which rely on camouflage to escape hungry birds, underwent a similar transformation from white to dark gray when the revolution industrial plant has covered buildings and trees with soot.

One of the main lessons here is that our climate emergency affects not only individual species but, inevitably, relationships between species. Observe the effects of climate change on the interdependence of plants and birds. Consider the “timing shifts” that occur with flowering plants. The nectar-rich flowers reach their peak flowering phase a week or more before the hummingbirds arrive. Insect activity is also affected, with flocks of hungry swallows missing an expected insect outbreak. It is only through careful monitoring of the population that we are likely to notice these changes, such are the rampant effects of climate change.

Temperature, of course, isn’t the only climate variable at play: some trees move south and west in search of drifting moisture. Blue jays and other seed-hiding birds aid migration by transporting and burying seeds over long distances, some of which inevitably are not retrieved when a jay forgets or dies.

But how, Hanson wonders, does a plant outgrow climate change when its main seed distributor is gone? Joshua trees lost their most important long-range seed disperser in the giant land sloth Shasta, whose species became extinct after the last Ice Age, likely due to human predation. While woodland sloths could excrete Joshua’s seeds for miles from where the fruit was eaten, today Joshuas end up with pack rats and other small mammals, whose dispersal services s ‘grow to six feet per year. (I hope that the most amazing seed disperser in history, mankind, atones for the crimes of the past.)

While there are many species declines in these pages, there are also stories of flexibility and resilience. The nimble lovebirds (aka “little penguins”), plump little arctic seabirds, not only survive so far, but also thrive, no longer having to fly so far to find their favorite food – the flourishing zooplankton made accessible by melting ice.

There were times when I was hoping for information that did not materialize. It’s fascinating to learn that elderberries have a more bear-friendly nutrient profile than salmon, and that Alaskan grizzly bears will ditch the salmon run to feast on these berries, which are now fruiting sooner. But I would like to know how they feel when the time is right. Can they smell the berries from afar, or maybe see a crimson redness appear on the bushes upstream?

Grizzly bears aren’t the only ones after salmon. The author declares himself passionate about fishing. In doing so, he joins a large group of self-proclaimed animal lover writers who nonetheless pursue a hobby that causes fear, pain and suffering in their careers. There is now solid science demonstrating pain and emotion in all kinds of fish, including salmon. The dissonance here is not just ethical but ecological. As Hanson explains, the native cutthroat trout he seeks is threatened by hybridization with rainbow trout, with which these streams were stocked to meet the recreational needs of anglers.

Which brings us to Hanson’s inspiring closing argument that individual action brings about much needed policy change, not the other way around. While no one can do it all, there are many things that each of us can to do (and not to do), “tangible things like the way we drive, shop, eat, travel, protest, vote”, and even, he writes, “cut the grass.” Amen.

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