New England has long been known for its distinctive four seasons, but with climate change taking hold of the region faster than other parts of the world, this seasonal picture is being reshaped, and a variety of wildlife species are suffering the consequences.
“Climate is an essential feature of an ecosystem, and there are all kinds of impacts that can have on our wildlife,” says Tom Lutzenheiser, lead conservation ecologist at Mass Audubon.
How climate change affects a particular species depends on a variety of factors. These factors can include biology, physical adaptations, diet, reproductive strategies, interactions with other species, including pests and pathogens, as well as the availability, size, and quality of suitable habitats.
General species, those that can take advantage of a variety of food sources and ecosystems, would be better off than specialized species that adapt to very specific regions, foods, temperatures and environments, Lutzenheiser said.
For example, species with physiological adaptations to living in snowy and/or cold conditions, migratory species dependent on seasonal timing, and specialized species dependent on narrow food and habitat resources are likely to be most negatively affected by rising temperatures.
Wildlife experts say that species like the black bear, wolf, fox, raccoon and other highly adaptive animals will not feel the climate squeeze as much as rising temperatures and changing habitats.
According to research ecologist Tony Morelli of the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at UMass Amherst, New England is highly vulnerable to climate change and is warming at a much faster rate than global averages.
Seasonal patterns are changing, Morelli says, with spring coming and long stretches of drought, followed by a later fall with heavy, intense rain.
“This is what climate change will look like in the Northeast,” she said. “On average, we are getting wetter. But we don’t live in averages, we will live in these extremes, and that also applies to wildlife.”
Climate projections indicate that by the end of the century, there will be no snow in the region for most of the year, Morelli notes. “This is a huge shift for animals that depend on snow,” she said.
Heat stress, seasonal mismatch and habitat destruction affect wildlife from the forest to the sea coast and ocean environment, as climate change forces wildlife species to adapt, change their ranges, or eventually succumb to a warm environment that they can no longer support. Need.
Some New England species are notable examples of the effects of climate change, and how they might react to current stressors.
“One of the most surprising stories is what’s going on with elk in Maine and New Hampshire,” Morelli said.
Here, climate change has dealt one or two punches for this large, long-legged, heavy-coated northern species by creating a warm, inhospitable environment for moose, while at the same time giving rise to a parasite that is decimating their numbers.
“Moose are having a particularly hard time with winter ticks,” Morelli said, noting that more than 80,000 ticks have been found in individual moose. These numbers can drain the blood from the calves during the winter. Surveys reveal that last year, there was a mortality rate of nearly 80% of moose calves in Maine and New Hampshire.
Morelli says that ticks in Massachusetts are not affected by winter ticks, likely due to the low population density of ticks, which deprives ticks of an abundant host.
However, the climate-induced rise of parasitic pests is not the only problem. Moose have a physiological temperature limit and begin to experience heat stress in summer temperatures above 57 degrees and winter temperatures above 23 degrees.
“Now with the warmer temperatures, they won’t be able to handle the weather we expect,” Lautzenheiser said. “They will eventually be fired, apart from the retail issue.”
Like moose, the snowshoe hare is well adapted to live in snowy environments. A master of seasonal camouflage, their summer brown coat turns white during the winter. While the change is caused by changes in day length, coat color is genetically determined, which leaves the hare mismatched in a snow-free environment, making it an easy target for predators.
The Canadian lynx is also uniquely adapted to live in cold, snowy environments with its long legs, large paws, and thick coat. While a decrease in snow cover limits the lynx’s habitat, its survival is also closely related to the snowshoe rabbit, which makes up nearly 96% of its diet.
Morelli says the lack of snow will also affect some animals that hibernate and stand on the ground because they will lose the insulating effect of the snow.
“Non-snow winters actually mean really cold land, and these types experience colder environments because there’s no snow,” she said.
Cold ground means that hibernating animals will have to use more of their fat stores to stay warm, depleting more insulation.
Some aquatic species also struggle with warming and dry conditions.
“Brook trout is the poster child of the indigenous cold-water fish struggling with climate change,” Lutzenheiser said.
Brook trout generally cannot tolerate extended periods of water temperatures above 68 degrees. Since these fish depend on cold, high-oxygen water to survive, their population has decreased dramatically due to rising temperatures and reduced current flow.
The complexity of the effects of climate change is man-made barriers.
“Rivers are often dissected by sewers or dams, and groups of fish don’t have the ability to move through those systems to reach thermal refuge, so they are really struggling,” Lutzenheiser said.
Climate change also greatly affects amphibians that rely on spring ponds, the unique seasonal pools of water that provide a habitat for distinctive flora and fauna.
“The spring baths host a number of frogs and salamanders that are obligated to reproduce in these fish-free environments,” he said.
However, warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns can cause spring ponds to dry up too quickly for these species to complete their breeding cycles.
“This may be a problem for many specialized animals such as spotted salamanders and marble salamanders,” he said.
Like moose with winter ticks, amphibians also have additional parasitic stresses.
“Weeds are in trouble around the world,” Morelli said, referring to reptiles and amphibians. “We are concerned about frogs and salamanders in the Northeast because of diseases like chytrid,” she said.
Chytrid is a fungus that destroys the skin of frogs, toads, and other amphibians, eventually killing them.
On the coast, rising sea levels are inundating salt marshes and beaches, threatening species including the salt marsh sparrow and pipe plover.
Pipe plovers build nests in the narrow part of the land between the high tide line and the bottom of coastal dunes, and salt marsh sparrows nest exclusively in a narrow range of tidal marshes stretching from Maine to Virginia, with up to half of the world’s population breeding. in southern New England.
Morelli says that while beaches and salt marsh areas can naturally shift to higher cliffs over time, there would be no place in many areas where humans built up the coast.
“So these species will be very vulnerable to climate change as nests overwhelm and chicks drown,” she said.
“The oceans are also seeing these big shifts and certainly wildlife is responding to that,” Lutzenheiser said. “We’re basically seeing wholesale shifts in the areas of fish and marine life.”
Climate change is contributing to the rapid increase in annual cold snaps in sea turtles, Lutzenheiser said on Cape Cod.
With the Gulf of Maine warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world’s oceans, sea turtles are traveling further north than in previous years to forage in these warmer waters. By the time they reach Cape Cod when they return south, many become trapped by the Cape Cod as the waters there are cold.
“They get tired, and as the season comes, they get a cold shock and wash out on the tide,” Lutzenheiser said. “People bring them to the aquarium in a few years by the hundreds.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Northeast region has warmed more than any other region in the lower 48 states, exceeding the United Nations warming threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. The general hypothesis for this is that the warming of the waters in the Atlantic Ocean is contributing to the warming of the coastal and inland regions of the Northeast.
“When the global temperature rises by 2 degrees, here in the northeast we will rise 3 degrees,” Morelli said.
Land conservation efforts are one area that could provide some relief to species threatened by a warming climate.
As scientists study the current impact of climate change on wildlife, they say climate change shelters, or preserving areas that may remain relatively protected from contemporary climate change, may help some species over time.
“There has been a massive increase in population over the last century and a huge increase in concrete, invasive plants and insects, changes in temperature and changes in precipitation,” Morelli said. “If there are ways in which conservation can reduce some of these stresses, then species that have been around for millions of years and have adapted and evolved to threats can respond to current threats and be able to adapt.”
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