How Climate Change Makes Species Go Extinct

Atelopus certus tropical frogA type of frog called Atelopus certus. Many species in the genus Atelopus are threatened or extinct due to a fungus spreading. The fungus is surviving better because of global climate change.

Photo: Brian Gratwicke at Flickr

As climate changes, so does the way a species uses and interacts with its environment and other species. These changes could be why some species suffer severe declines, or even extinction in local populations a new study suggests.The study published tomorrow, Oct. 17, in the the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

“Currently our knowledge of the ways in which climate change can lead to species extinctions is extremely limited,” study researcher John Wiens, from Stony Brook University, said in a statement from the journal. “Understanding the proximate causes of extinction from climate change should be an urgent priority for future research if we are to develop effective conservation strategies to ameliorate their effects.”

This next great extinction, on par with the mass die off that killed the dinosaurs, may actually have already started.

To see how climate is playing a role in local species extinctions, the researchers studied 136 case studies to figure out how climate might have been involved in each. They found seven studies that could be nailed down as climate-related.

Although there were only a handful of studies to review, in the ones that were climate related the researchers noticed a pattern: They found that local extinctions happened because of changes in how the animals used and interacted with their environment, not because of temperature changes.

For example they found that: Reduced food availability led to local extinctions of three birds — a plover, a jay, and an auklet; A spreading deadly fungus killed off multiple species of tropical frog; drought killed off a local type of aloe tree and four amphibians; and lower oxygen availability in warmer waters killed off a fish.

The loss of beneficial species interactions was also a factor in local extinctions. Rapid changes in climate wreaked havoc for figs and their wasps and for algae that live on corals.

Species aren’t the only things that are disappearing. Check out 11 Islands That Will Vanish When Sea Levels Rise >

An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested these were complete species extinctions, in fact they were local extinctions.

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