Climate change could cause elephants’ ears to grow larger as animals “change” to survive, one study suggests

Climate change could cause animals around the world to grow larger ears, beaks, and tails as our warming planet forces them to rapidly “change shape” to survive, according to a new study.

Decades of monitoring animals’ adaptation to global warming have shown that many change their breeding and migration patterns to avoid the new heat and, in some cases, shrink to better regulate their bodies temperatures.

In a phenomenon known as the Allen Rule, animals in warmer climates tend to have larger appendages such as ears, beaks, legs, and tails that they can use to dissipate heat.

Although appendages often have less feathers or less fur than other parts of the body of birds and animals, they have other benefits as well. For example, elephants can pump warm blood into their ears, which are filled with blood vessels, and hit them to distribute the heat. The larger the appendage, the more heat can be lost.

In a new research, scientists report that they have found “widespread evidence” of changes in appendage size in response to global warming – “from the Arctic to the tropical regions of Australia”.

Published in Trends in ecology and evolution Journal, scientists in the study analyzed museum records of animal body proportions and reviewed long-term analyzes of wildlife, which uncovered numerous cases where the species’ appendages had grown rapidly in a short period of time.

While these rapid “shape change” cases were previously often attributed to changes in habitat or diet, climate change is the “only unifying variable” that can explain why the changes occur in so many different species around the world, lead author Sara Ryding told VICE.

“When climate change is discussed in the mainstream media, people often ask, ‘can people overcome this’ or ‘what technology can solve this’,” said Ms. Ryding, a PhD student in ornithology at Deakin University, Australia.

“It is high time we realized that animals also need to adapt to these changes, but this happens over a much shorter period of time than would have been the case during most evolutionary periods. The climate change we have caused is putting tremendous pressure on them, and while some species will adapt, others will not. “

The increases in appendage size observed so far are “quite small” at less than 10 percent and “it is unlikely that they will be noticeable immediately,” said Ms. Ryding.

“However, it is predicted that prominent appendages like ears will increase – so we might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not too distant future,” she added.

Most of the examples of shape changes found by the researchers were in birds. For example, the beaks of two Australian parrots – Gaited Cockatoos and Red-legged Parrots – have increased between 4 and 10 percent in size since 1871.

The changes are already occurring in mammals. For example, since 1950 the tails and legs of the masked shrews in Alaska have grown significantly since 1950, while the wings of the large round-leaved bats have increased by 1.64 percent.

The study also postulated that the increase in extreme weather events – increasingly attributable to climate change – could contribute to the rapid change in shape of some species. Researchers pointed to the North American dark-eyed Junco sparrow, whose beak appeared to increase in size in relation to short-term temperature extremes.

The scientists hope that their research could help predict which animals may be most susceptible to rapid appendage growth and how this could affect their wider ecosystems.

“Change of shape does not mean that animals can cope with climate change and that everything is ‘okay’,” said Ms. Ryding.

“It just means that they evolve to survive – but we’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or that all species can change and survive.”

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