Climate change forces species to move fast: study

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Climate change appears to be forcing many of the world's creatures to migrate to more favorable locales up to three times faster than previously believed, a study said Thursday.

Researchers compiled past studies on species migration and combined them into a meta-analysis that showed a clear trend toward cooler climates, with the fastest moves in places where heating was most intense.

"These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the equator at around 20 centimeters per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year," said project leader Chris Thomas, biology professor at the University of York.

"This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century."

The study, which appears in the journal Science, was described by York ecology professor and co-author Jane Hill as "a summary of the state of world knowledge about how the ranges of species are responding to climate change.

"Our analysis shows that rates of response to climate change are two or three times faster than previously realized," she said.

The data came from studies of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders and plants in Europe, North America, Chile, Malaysia, and South Africa's Marion Island.

By grouping the studies together and analyzing their results, researchers found for the first time a link between how hot it was getting and where organisms were moving.

"This research shows that it is global warming that is causing species to move towards the poles and to higher elevations," said lead author I-Ching Chen, now a researcher at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

"We have for the first time shown that the amount by which the distributions of species have changed is correlated with the amount the climate has changed in that region."

Previous studies have suggested that some species are at risk for extinction due to their change in habitat, but this study did not delve into which species might be most in peril.

Instead, researchers said they hoped the analysis would give a more accurate picture of the changes going on across the planet.

"Realization of how fast species are moving because of climate change indicates that many species may indeed be heading rapidly towards extinction, where climatic conditions are deteriorating," said Thomas.

"On the other hand, other species are moving to new areas where the climate has become suitable; so there will be some winners as well as many losers."

© 2011 AFP

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