Iberian lynx
Iberian lynx. Credit: James Gordon

Wildlife will have to evolve 10,000 times faster to keep up with climate change finds a new study published in Ecology Letters.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and Yale University estimated the rate of evolution for 17 vertebrate groups — comprised of 540 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians — by looking at genetic data to determine when species in the past split off into other species. They found that species can adapt to an average temperature increase of one degree Celsius per one million years. Yet, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as four degrees Celsius in less than 100 years. As temperatures rise, wildlife will need to seek higher latitudes or higher ground to stay in temperatures and climates they’re adapted to. Species who are unable to make the move could face extinction.

Several recent studies on species expected to be extinct within 50 years illustrate the idea all too well. A study published last week in Nature Climate Change estimates that the Iberian lynx — believed to be the world’s rarest cat — will be extinct within 50 years, even if the world is able to meet carbon emissions reduction goals.

Jewel lizard
Jewel lizard. Credit: Mana von Unger

A very special group of lizards is in a similar bind according to a study in Global Ecology and Biogeography. Lizards of the Liolaemus genus, such as the colorful jewel lizard of Peru, have thrived in part thanks to the adaptation of giving live birth. This adaptation is believed to be the key to the lizards’ spread into colder climates. Ironically, the very adaptation that gave them success in the past may doom them in the future: The transition from eggs to live birth is an irreversible one. They now depend on colder climates for survival. Like the lynx, these lizards are predicted to disappear within the next 50 years.

News like this can be discouraging, but it’s also important to keep conservation successes in mind. For example, partly through efforts to preserve Jack pine forests, Kirtland’s warbler has rebounded from a population of a few hundred to 2,000 singing males. And earlier this year, we heard that the Siberian tiger has been making a comeback in several key ecosystems. Some species will not be able to keep up with climate change, but we’ll continue to do all we can, with your help, to restore and protect habitat so that others can.