Traditionally, biological research into the effects of climate change has focussed on the changes that have already occurred.
What's really necessary, however, is a method to anticipate the effects that climate change will have in the future. A University of Alberta researcher is part of a team that has developed one tool to do just that.
Biologist Murray Humphries, of the University of Alberta and the University of Aberdeen, co-authored a paper with Profs. John Speakman and Donald Thomas that appears in the most recent issue of Nature magazine. Their research predicts that climate change will cause the northern limit of the winter range of the North American little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) to extend northward by approximately 5 km per year over the next century.
First, the researchers established a direct link between the hibernation physiology of the bats and their habitat distribution in northern regions.
In short, little brown bats can only hibernate in regions where winters are sufficiently short and warm to allow autumn fat reserves to last until spring.
Once that link was established, they used existing climate change projections for northern Canada to estimate how the hibernation conditions faced by bats will change in the future.
Comparing the two sets of information, they predicted that as North American winters get warmer and shorter, bats' existing capabilities to store fat for hibernation will allow them to expand their northern ranges by approximately 5 kilometres per year.
Researchers often face difficulties predicting the effects of climate change because of the sheer complexity of factors involved.
This research shows that, for at least one component of an ecosystem, basic physiological processes can be used to predict the effects of climate change.
Furthermore, this research also makes clear how even small changes in temperature can have dramatic changes on animal distributions.