UK wildlife calendar reshuffled by climate change

Climate change is already reshuffling the UK’s wildlife calendar, and it’s likely this will continue into the future, according to new research published in the journal Nature.

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The results suggest that seasonal events – such as the timing of flowering in plants and breeding in birds – are generally more sensitive to temperature change, than to changes in precipitation such as rain and snowfall. Plants and animals respond differently to temperature changes at different times of year.

Seasonal relationships between predators, such as insect-eating birds and plankton-eating fish, and their prey could be disrupted in the future. This could affect the breeding success and survival of these species, with possible consequences for UK biodiversity.

The analysis shows that, given these patterns in climate sensitivity, species in the middle of food webs, such as some insects and plankton species, which feed on plants but are themselves fed on by predators, are likely to change their seasonal “behaviour” the most in future.

The study was led by ecologists at the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, working in collaboration with scientists from the University of Lincoln and other organisations including research institutes, non-governmental organisations and universities. The analysis involved more than 370,000 observations of seasonal events including long-term records, spanning the period 1960 to 2012, covering 812 marine, freshwater and dry-land plant and animal species from the UK, from plankton to plants, butterflies to birds and moths to mammals.

The data represented three levels of the food chain, primary producers (such as flowering plants and algae), primary consumers (such as seed-eating birds and herbivorous insects) and secondary consumers (such as insect-eating birds, fish and mammals).

Stephen Hall, Emeritus Professor of Animal Science in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, contributed data from the Chillingham herd of wild cattle that have lived in a historic park in Northumberland for many centuries.

Professor Hall said: “I was involved with the Chillingham herd for many years before I joined the University and was fortunate in being able to keep this interest going. With access to herd records and with my own observations I was able to provide 60 years of birth date information for this study. Over the last 60 years the trend has been for calving to happen earlier in the year and this is ultimately due to climate change.”

The study combined species records with national temperature and rainfall data to show that plants and animals not only vary greatly in their sensitivity to climate change, but also that species at different levels in food chains have been responding to climate in different ways. Using the current best estimates of climate change, the study forecasts that by 2050, primary consumers will have shifted their seasonal timing by more than twice as much as species at other trophic levels — an average of 6.2 days earlier versus 2.5­­–2.9 days, although there is substantial variation among taxonomic groups.

The lead author of the study, Dr Stephen Thackeray from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “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.

“Our findings highlight the importance of managing ecosystems within a ‘safe operating space’ with respect to the likely impacts of projected climate change.”

The study combined data collected as part of long-running scientific monitoring schemes, and also extensive citizen science initiatives, capitalising on the rich tradition of biological recording in the UK.

The study was carried out by scientists from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Met Office, Rothamsted Research, The Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, British Trust for Ornithology, The Woodland Trust, Butterfly Conservation, University of Cambridge, Sea Mammal Research Unit, The Freshwater Biological Association, University of Lincoln, Aarhus University (Denmark), University of Edinburgh, The Australian National University (Australia), Coventry University, Poznań University of Life Sciences, (Poland), University of Aberdeen, and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.

The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.