Science

Mammals, birds could beat reptiles and amphibians in race to survive, study suggests

A 60-year-old river turtle of the endangered species Podocnemis Lewyana, at a turtle farm in Colombia. Researchers say turtles and other cold-blooded animals, that can’t regulate their own body temperatures, could have a harder time during climate change.
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A 60-year-old river turtle of the endangered species Podocnemis Lewyana, at a turtle farm in Colombia. Researchers say turtles and other cold-blooded animals, that can’t regulate their own body temperatures, could have a harder time during climate change.

In the old fable, the tortoise beats the hare. But when it comes to climate change — and the race to survive — it might be just the opposite.

Mammals and birds, warm-blooded animals, may survive rapid climate change. But it could be tougher for cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians, who could be too slow to adapt, according to new research.

Mammals and birds are “better able to stretch out and extend their habitats,” said Jonathan Rolland, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study, which was published Monday in Nature Ecology.

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“This could have a deep impact on extinction rates and what our world looks like in the future,” Rolland said in a statement from the university.

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The research examined more than 270 million years of data on animals. It combined data from the current distribution of animals, fossil records, and other information, looking at more than 11,000 species. The researchers reconstructed where animals lived over the epochs and the temperatures they needed to survive in their areas, the university said.

The Earth was warm and tropical until 40 million years ago, making it a hospitable place for many species. As the Earth cooled, birds and mammals were able to adapt to colder climes in more northern and southern regions, the university said.

Reptiles and amphibians, not so much.

“It might explain why we see so few reptiles and amphibians in the Antarctic or even temperate habitats,” Rolland said. “It’s possible that they will eventually adapt and could move into these regions but it takes longer for them to change.”