Quirks & Quarks

Animals are shapeshifting in response to climate warming, and it could be costing them

From beaks, to ears, to tails, researchers have noticed animals around the world are changing their body shape in order to help them shed body heat.

Appendages like beaks, ears, and tails are getting bigger to help animals shed body heat

The king parrot is one of the animals found to have increased their beak size over the past century. In this thermal image, it shows that the beak is warmer than the rest of its body. (Alexandra McQueen)

Animals around the world are changing their body shape in order to adapt to a warming climate, according to a new study.

Previously, researchers have found that animals in warmer climates tend to evolve larger appendages — like beaks, ears, or tails — than animals in cooler climates. The larger surface area helps them shed more body heat. In this study, researchers reported over 30 species where these body parts had gotten larger in areas that had gotten warmer because of climate change.

"We're also seeing these changes in such a wide variety of animals, animals that have different ecologies and different different life histories, in different parts of the world. And what they really have in common is that they're experiencing climate change," Sara Ryding told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

The red-rumped parrot is another species shown to have evolved a bigger beak size in response to climate change. (Ryan Barnaby)

The changes include increases in ear size in wood mice found in Europe, increases in tail size of masked shrews in Alaska, and an increase in wing size of great roundleaf bats in China. The most pronounced change they found was in several species of Australian parrots, whose beak size had grown between 4 and 10 per cent since the year 1871.

"I think it's very alarming that animals are having to respond like this," she said. "There's a limit on how much animals can change their body shape before it starts interfering with other aspects of their life."

The study was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Sara Ryding is a PhD student at Deakin University. You can listen to her full conversation with Bob McDonald at the link above.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz




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