Stressed Out Species Aren’t Adapting in the Ways We Think They Should

Some animals are adapting to habitat destruction, but not always in the way that we would like

Bamboo sharks are one of the many species which are migrating due to climate change. Photo: Silke Baron

As the climate changes and as humans expand their footprint on the planet, the world is warming, rainfall patterns are shifting, ice is melting, forests are disappearing, and animals are forced to adapt or to face extinction. In Scientific American, Mark Fischetti reports on the mass migration taking place in the ocean, where fish are moving to cooler climes. From this shift in locale, however, a problem arises:

Scientists are finding that, in general, larger ocean organisms such as fishes have less tolerance for temperature change than the microorganisms they consume, such as phytoplankton. So it is possible that as fishes migrate, their preferred food sources may not. To survive, the migrants may have to change their diet once they reach their new neighborhoods.

This assumption, that the fish will just find something new to eat in their new home, makes a lot of sense. If you go on vacation from the U.S. to Cambodia, for instance, you don’t expect your neighborhood restaurant to follow you—you just smile and dig in to your bai sach chrouk. As io9 reports, many species are adapting to climate change at an impressive pace. (Though they note that many others aren’t doing so well.)

What scientists are finding out the hard way, however, is that the adaptation strategies that seem to just make sense don’t always play out the way we’d have hoped. The BBC tells the tale of the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah, a subspecies of which there are only 70 remaining wild members, all of which live in Iran. Poaching, rather than climate change, drove down the amount of prey species available to the wild predators.

Scientists figured that the cheetahs would just adapt to their changing situation by eating more rabbits or rodents, says the BBC, but that isn’t what happened. Instead, scientists “found the cats had turned to hunting domestic animals because they could not survive on smaller prey.” So now, the cheetahs are adapting, but they are adapting by taking from farmer’s herds—a strategy that could bring the big cats and the farmers into conflict. So far, “he scientists’ study reported that local herders seemed unaware of the Asiatic cheetah’s “depredation of their stock”, perhaps because the cats are so rare.” They suggest that putting tighter restrictions on poaching could help boost Asiatic cheetah numbers while keeping them away from the farm.

As with the cheetahs, so too with the myriad other species affected by habitat destruction and climate change. Many of them will likely adapt, but not always in ways that are agreeable to human interests.

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