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USA TODAY, Associated Press
Some animals are “shapeshifting” parts of their bodies, and it may be due to climate change, according to a new study.
The evidence of warm-blooded animals experiencing changes to appendages such as beaks, legs and ears was found by a team of researchers led by Sara Ryding of Deakin University in Australia and was published Tuesday in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
To measure the changes, researchers used what is known as Allen’s Rule, which states that animals in colder climates have shorter limbs and appendages than those in warmer climates.
The biggest evidence of change occurred in birds from Australia and North America. Australian parrots have shown an average increase of 4%–10% in bill surface area since 1871 as temperatures have risen. In North America, dark-eyed junco saw similar increases in bill size. Other changes showed wood mice having bigger ears and bats with larger wings.
“This implicates the increased frequency of extreme climate events in causing morphological shifts, in addition to the general rise in temperature associated with climate change,” the study reads. “It is noteworthy that the examples given here range across broad geographic areas, from the Arctic to tropical regions of Australia.”
Climate change plays a role because rising temperatures mean animals must find ways to control their body temperatures. Birds use their beaks to regulate body temperature, and ears do the same for mammals. Failing to regulate body temperature can mean death.
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“A lot of the time when climate change is discussed in mainstream media, people are asking ”Can humans overcome this?’ or ‘What technology can solve this?’ It’s high time we recognized that animals also have to adapt to these changes, but this is occurring over a far shorter timescale than would have occurred through most of evolutionary time,” Ryding said. “The climate change that we have created is heaping a whole lot of pressure on them, and while some species will adapt, others will not.”
Ryding added that while the changes are drastic, it gives an idea that an increase of changes may be happening sooner rather than later.
“We might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future,” she said.
While the changes can be pointed to simply as animals evolving, Ryding says it doesn’t mean, “all is ‘fine.'” Researchers plan to study how these changes affect lifestyles such as feeding.
“It just means they are evolving to survive it,” she said. “We’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving.”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.