Adapt, migrate, or die: how non-human species are responding to the climate crisis

Lili Weir — PAONIA and GOTHIC

In a time where much of the conversation surrounding climate change is focused on human adaptability and global catastrophes, the individual lives of the flora and fauna living in these changing landscapes are being ignored. 

For many of the plants and animals observed at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratories, changes in climate are forcing them to shift their hibernation and blooming seasons, and move upwards in elevation in order to survive.

Often times for these mountain creatures their “only option is to either go extinct or evolve,” ecologist David Inouye said in a recent interview.

The yellow-bellied marmots that live in this arid high country ecosystem have begun to change their hibernation patterns as the snowpack in Gothic decreases year after year. 

In fact these marmots have began to emerge thirty eight days earlier than normal because of warmer spring air temperatures, according to a study by Inouye.

This change in hibernation season poses pros and cons for the marmots. The longer growing season for vegetation means that fewer marmots are dying because of starvation during their winter hibernation months. 

On the other hand shorter winters leaves them vulnerable to predation by foxes which have begun to move upwards in elevation as temperatures heat up down in the valley.

Much like the foxes, the twelve different species of bumblebees that live in Gothic have also begun to shift higher in altitude.

Climate change has started causing a “decrease in wildflowers and increase in sage” at higher elevations, RMBL director Ian Billick said.

Before this upward movement, each of these bee species occupied an elevation niche, each with their own unique plants and flowers.

Now as these ecosystems migrate upwards in altitude, the lower elevation bees move with them which causes resource problems as there are too many different kinds of bees trying to occupy the same spaces.

The high altitude bumblebees are “going to be kicked off the mountain tops,” Inouye said.

One of the driving factors for the bee movement is the changing migration and blooming patterns caused by a warmer environment. 

“Plant flowering times are a sensitive indicator of climate change,” Billick said.

The effects of these climatological changes can be seen particularly well with Frasera speciosa or the monument plant which can live up to 100 years and only blooms once, according to data gathered by Inouye.

The bloom times of monument plant directly correlate with the amount of water the plant absorbed four years prior.

In an increasingly dry climate with a longer frost periods, the likelihood that the frasera will survive long enough and receive enough water to reach blooming age is becoming more and more slim.

In years past, Inouye has observed up to 18,000 of these plants in his area of study however in his 2018 report he only saw nine.

Species near RMBL and across the high mountains are having to migrate, evolve, or risk extinction as climate induced warming rapidly changes their mountain landscapes.

In Inouye’s mind, “what’s normal is going to change over time.”

But can these species continue to adapt quick enough to outrun climate change?


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