Soil Dwellers' DNA May Change as Planet Warms
A once rare butterfly living in the United Kingdom is the latest unexpected beneficiary of the rising temperatures brought about by global climate change. Over the last 25 years, the brown Argus butterfly can now exist over a larger range thanks to a warmer environment and a new plant host to raise its young. And these fortunate insects aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from a warmer world. Yes, over the coming decades, there are certainly many other species, including humans, that will feel increasingly pressured by environmental changes brought about by climate change. But there will be some balance of winners and losers among the different species on this planet. Here's a look at some of those who will likely come out ahead.
Change in wind patterns as a result of climate change has helped albatrosses in the Southern Ocean find food more rapidly, according to a study published in a January 2012 issue of Science. The faster and more intense winds reduce the amount of energy albatrosses need to expend to fly, particularly useful given that these birds can fly distances spanning thousands of miles. By using less energy and finding more food, the albatrosses are healthier and often have better breeding outcomes, according to the study's authors.
Gray Nurse Shark
Worldwide, around one third of oceanic shark species are at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These animals are primarily at risk as a result of human intervention, particularly the overfishing of sharks for their fins. But there is one species of shark that may stand to benefit from man-made climate change, the Australian gray nurse shark. Like many shark species, gray nurse shark populations have been under pressure. This species could disappear entirely by 2050. However, thanks for warmer waters surrounding Australia, two separate populations of this nurse shark on each side of the continent may reunite for the first time in 100,000 years.
Sharks aren't the only sea life that might benefit from warmer waters. Killer whales, too, appear poised to take advantage of rising ocean temperatures, exploiting new feeding areas as Arctic snow ice melts that were once off limits. The orca's gain, however, could be detrimental to other species. Killer whales prey on two species, the beluga and the narwhale, considered "near threatened" by the IUCN. With their chances to escape to safety from the predatory killer whales dwindling as ice melts, these species could face further pressure to their populations.
This tiny insect has made major inroads into the North American continent thanks to warmer temperatures. Mountain pine beetles can decimate entire forests. During cold snaps, they are killed off. But with shorter, warmer winters, more of these bugs are surviving through the cold season and expanding their ranges even further.
Acidifying oceans and warmer waters might be encouraging swells in populations of jellyfish around the world. Although the notion that jellyfish are benefiting from climate change has been subject to debate, studies have shown that coastal jellyfish populations are generally on the rise. More jellyfish would be bad news for any species that relied on the oceans for its food supply, including humans. Jellyfish can essentially reorder the food web by eating the same plankton that would otherwise be consumed by fish, restricting the transfer of energy on the food chain since predators tend to avoid them. The increase in jellyfish populations could also lead to an ecological disaster by resulting in an increase in carbon beyond what oceans can cope with, according to a report from The Guardian. When jellyfish die, they break down into biomass with considerably higher levels of carbon than their vertebrate counterparts. Bacteria that thrive on decaying organisms cannot absorb carbon as well and instead breathe it out into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Once standing on the brink of extinction due to over-hunting for their meat and feathers in the 19th century, trumpeter swans have made a comeback in Alaska, thanks not only to restrictions on hunting these birds but also to global warming. Warmer temperatures have allowed the swans to expanding their ranges, and longer summers have allowed to greater opportunities for breeding and raising young, according to Scientific American.
Americans spend some $40 billion a year caring for their lawn, according to Bloomberg News. And that industry could get even more lucrative with the spread of a pest that has its sites set on your home turf: fire ants. According to a report from the National Wildfire Foundation, the range of red imported fire ants could expand some 21 percent in the United States, more than 80 miles northward, within the lifetime of a child born today.
If there's one creature who's climate change gain is our loss, it's mosquitoes. No longer restricted to strictly tropical environments, mosquitoes have spread as warmer temperatures have crept into environments they had never previously been. More mosquitoes means higher potential to spread diseases, including malaria, West Nile virus and dengue fever. This greater risk of disease is not only bad news for humans, but also some animals, including certain bird species, who had previously been unexposed to these pests. In fact, even some of the world's largest creatures are not immune to the disease transmitted by these tiny insects. Last month, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society revealed that two whales kept in captivity died as a result of diseases carried by mosquitoes.
Yellow Bellied Marmot
Although most mammals won't be able to flee climate change quickly enough, some are taking full advantage of the changing conditions. The yellow-bellied marmot, which calls Colorado's Rocky Mountains home, fattens up ahead of winter before its long hibernation into spring. With a shorter season though, the marmots are emerging larger than they otherwise would. As a result, they've also been breeding more and passing their larger size onto their offspring.
Even the ground beneath our feet may be changing as the climate warms. Communities of tiny, soil-dwelling lifeforms, or microbes, changed after above-ground temperatures were artificially raised for 10 years, in a recently completed experiment in Oklahoma.
“In models of climate change it is a black box (for) what happens to the carbon in soil,” said study co-author Kostas Konstantinidis of Georgia Tech in a press release.
Some scientists speculate that increasing carbon dioxide and air temperatures could fuel faster plant growth. The increase in plants could help suck carbon dioxide out of the air and reduce a major cause of climate change.
Plants use carbon to form cellulose, a structural material needed for strength and support. The carbon becomes trapped in the plants and subsequently escapes slowly as the plants die and decay.
However, the results of this new study suggest that soil microbes may pick up their pace as well and break down plant residues more quickly. This could result in the carbon being released from the decaying plants more quickly than it does now.
In the warmed soil, microbes’ genetic makeup changed to increase the ability to break down cellulose by 13 percent. Genes related to the microbes’ production of carbon dioxide increased by 10 percent, while metabolic pathways used in dealing with nitrogen increased by 12 percent.
These adaptations may have resulted from an increase in plant growth. During the decade of warmth, plants grew faster and taller in the warmed soil compared to plants in nearby unaltered plots. The tiny soil organisms may have rapidly evolved to take advantage of the abundance of cellulose from the vigorous plants’ roots and other residues.
For 10 years in the experiment, radiators heated the air above the soil by 2 degrees Celsius. Konstantinidis and his team used genetic analysis of soil samples to determine the makeup of the microbe community, which contained thousands of different species. The research was published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
Photos: ThomasVogel/Getty Images (top), Mengting Yuan, University of Oklahoma, (above)