Glacial melting puts animals on the run

Posted Oct. 12, 2011, at 5:52 p.m.

Cool-weather animals, put on your running shoes. A new study of historic climate patterns suggests that, as our current world warms, slower-moving critters may go extinct in far greater numbers than their speedier counterparts. The findings highlight the importance of giving animals enough room to move freely in the face of future climate change, researchers say.

Nearly 21,000 years ago, during what scientists call the Last Glacial Maximum, thick ice tracts swaddled much of North America and Europe. Then, over thousands of years, those glaciers began to melt and dribble away. Ancient creatures across the globe from bats to frogs faced a difficult decision: adapt to the hotter conditions or move, usually north or up mountains, to chase the recedin g cooler breezes.

In a 2009 paper published in Nature, researchers coined the term “climate velocity” to describe the pace of such mass migrations. They weren’t just interested in the past — they were concerned about the future. As the world warms, many species will once again be forced to flee, says Scott Loarie, a biogeographer at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University in Palo Alt o, California, who coauthored the 2009 study.

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