Global warming is causing breeding and migration cycles of related plants and animals to fall out of sync with potential impacts on entire ecosystems, research shows
Jessica Aldred Wednesday 29 June 2016 13.00 EDT Last modified on Wednesday 29 June 2016 13.02 EDT
Climate change is disrupting the seasonal behaviour of Britain’s plants and animals, with rising temperatures having an impact on species at different levels of the food chain, new research shows.
The result could be widespread “desynchronisation” between species and their phenological events – seasonal biological cycles such as breeding and migration – that could affect the functioning of entire ecosystems, according to the large-scale study published this week in the journal Nature. It also warns of changes in the key seasonal interactions between species that could disrupt relationships between predators and prey and affect their breeding success and survival.
The study, led by Dr Stephen Thackeray from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in collaboration with 17 other organisations, analysed 10,003 long term phenological data sets of 812 of the UK’s marine, freshwater and land-based plant and animal species collected between 1960-2012 on everything from fish spawning to plant flowering. The data was split into three levels of the food chain and spatially matched with local temperature and rainfall data, and models of seasonal timing and climatic variables, to show the variation in which species at different “trophic” levels are sensitive climate change.
“This is the largest study of the climatic sensitivity of UK plant and animal seasonal behaviour to date. Our results show the potential for climate change to disrupt the relationships between plants and animals, and now it is crucially important that we try to understand the consequences of these changes,” Thackeray said. He said the findings highlighted the importance of managing ecosystems within a “safe operating space” that considered the likely impacts of projected climate change.
The UK has a rich history of biological recording by scientists and ‘citizen scientists’ who document the first signs of spring. Photograph: Alamy The study shows that seasonal events – including flowers blooming, leaves falling or animals hibernating – are generally more sensitive to temperature rises brought about by climate change than to changes in precipitation or snowfall.
But the “direction, magnitude and timing of climate sensitivity” varies significantly among species in different groups or levels of the food chain, the study showed.
Secondary consumers (such as predatory birds, fish and mammals) were consistently less sensitive to climate variations than species at the base of the chain (such as seed-eating birds and herbivorous insects), which were twice as sensitive to temperature. Using estimates, the study predicted that by 2050, these primary consumers will have shifted their seasonal timing by more than twice as much as species at other levels of the food chain — an average of 6.2 days earlier compared to 2.5–2.9 days earlier….
Species being disrupted by climate change
Early spider orchids and solitary miner bees
The solitary miner bee (Andrena nigroaenea) has been found to be more affected by climate change than the early spider orchid that it pollinates. Although both orchids and bees are both affected by temperature rises, they have a greater impact on the bees, the females of which emerge earlier, meaning that the males are less likely visit the orchids for pseudocopulation.
Oak buds and winter moths
Research has shown that an increase in spring temperatures without a decrease in the incidences of freezing spells in winter leads to poor synchronicity between the winter moth (Operophtera brumata) caterpillars and the oak tree (Quercus robur) buds on which they feed.
Cuckoos and their host species
While the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) has only advanced its migration slightly in response to earlier springs, many of its host species (the nests of which the cuckoo lays its eggs in) have begun to migrate much earlier, and are arriving at the breeding grounds well before the cuckoos.