Across the world, plants and animals are finding themselves utterly befuddled by the environmental changes wrought by global warming.
Take the orchid: usually, the flower lures male bees into pollinating with it by mimicking the pheromones of the female bee. But with spring coming earlier, female bees are emerging sooner and luring those male bees away before they’ve had the chance to reproduce with the flower.
A similar pattern is repeating itself with African flycatcher birds, rabbits and caribous in Greenland. Scientists call it “phenological mismatch,” or “the phenomenon of food and habitat being available at different times than those to which the species was formerly cued.”
With the right timing being the difference a species’ survival or extinction, scientists are rightfully worried about what will happen if these plants and animals aren’t able to rapidly adapt:
Consider the snowshoe hare, whose fur coat has evolved to change from brown to white during the winter for camouflage. As the earth has warmed, however, snow cover in the hare’s habitat melts sooner, leaving the animal more exposed to predators.
“Camouflage is critical to keep prey animals alive,” said L. Scott Mills, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Montana who studies the impacts of camouflage mismatch on species like the snowshoe hare.
For every week the hare is mismatched, Dr. Mills and his colleagues found, it had a 7 percent higher chance of being killed by predators like the lynx.
Currently, the hare is only mismatched by a week or two. But by midcentury, Dr. Mills said, that could extend up to eight weeks. If that were to happen, he said, the hare “would start declining toward extinction.”
There is some good news for the snowshoe hare, however. Where evolution was previously thought to take millions of years, scientists now think an animal like the hare could adapt in five to 10 generations, especially if those parts of the hare population which are more adaptable are protected.
“It does give us an avenue for hope,” Dr. Mills said. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that species with phenological mismatch are going to go extinct.”
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