News: Climate Change Setting Traps For Migratory Species

Caribou Migration
© Sergey Krasnoshchokov/

Written by Mike Mcpherson

Published: October 22, 2021

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Much the way species evolve and change over time, so too does the global climate. Cyclical heating and cooling make incremental progress over centuries. Ecosystems adapt gradually to new conditions. However, modern climate change functions on an unprecedented scale. For migratory species that travel great distances to live within agreeable temperature ranges, the rapid shift is catching them off guard.

A recent study, which examined the findings of 25 others, determined the rise in average global temperatures presents a significant threat to migratory species. Animals like the shorebirds, caribou, and even monarch butterflies venture north during the summer months to breed. They travel over 600 miles between winter and summer habitats to dodge both inhospitable cold and dangerous heat.

The advantage of traveling north to mate is known as migration profitability. Historically, this meant fewer predators, parasites, and diseases, as well as plentiful food sources. However, as climate change wreaks havoc on their northern summer homes, migratory species become increasingly imperiled. Once a haven for mating, northern breeding grounds have become traps for migrating animals.

Climate Change Degrading Breeding Grounds For Migratory Species

Climate change negatively impacts migratory species in a number of ways. For example, those that venture into the Arctic now face a growing number of diseases and parasites as warmer temps allow their proliferation. Additionally, nest predation in this region is on the rise. Arctic foxes once fed on lemmings and voles. However, warmer winters now feature rains that melt snow, which refreezes at night into ice that covers over the grass and berries these prey feed on. As their populations shrink for lack of sufficient and accessible food sources, their predators in turn seek alternative meals.

Hence the increased nest predation. Fewer young survive into adulthood, leading to a decline in certain migratory species of bird. In this way, climate change illustrates the complex and intricate construction of ecosystems. 

And ecosystems all over the world are registering these impacts. Approximately 200,000 migrating antelopes died in Kazakhstan as a result of a blood infection. The culprit was a bacterium, Pasteurella multocida, aided by higher than usual air moisture where the antelope calve. The increased humidity in the region results from global heating and climate change.

A study published in Ecology and Society in 2016 tracked a cholera outbreak among common eiders. Inuit communities rely upon the bird’s meat and eggs for sustenance, so the spread of disease through its population makes a direct human impact, as well.

Targeted Conservation Efforts

In order to offset the impact of climate change on migratory species, further research is required. The leading author of the study, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Bath, Dr. Vojtěch Kubelka calls the findings alarming. “The recognition of emerging threats and the proposed framework of migration profitability classification will help to identify the most endangered populations and regions,” he said.

Such identification is crucial in any conservation effort. To advocate for specific and effective conservation plans, one must identify the impacted migratory species and the exact manner in which climate change affects them. A great many creatures venture vast distances in migratory patterns, and their routes cover the globe. It’s a daunting prospect, but one the authors of the study push. New threats to migrating animals increase the odds of extinction, which dramatically alters the precariously balanced ecosystems like the Arctic and presents disastrous ripple effects for the globe.

Though the nature of the issue, in many respects, may exceed human capacity to fix, certain actions can be undertaken to mitigate the developing problem. Considering the ways in which these travellers connect disparate regions of the planet to produce a vibrant and complexly developed global ecosystem, it behooves our species to act.

Treaties like the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species bind multiple nations to the responsibility of caring for migrating animal life. It lists migratory species considered endangered or in an unfavorable status and creates protections around them. The establishment of migration corridors also clears the way for animals making their annual journey. The natural perils offer enough danger without the addition of human presence, so ensuring safer passage by getting out of the way helps more animals reach their destination.

Ultimately, the fate of migratory species relies on many unknown factors, but the human one falls under our purview. How we choose to defend these animals could determine whether they survive for future generations.

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