Wild Notes Spring 2010 edition

Spring 2010

*You can also download the entire issue in PDF form.

Cosmo the flying squirrel


From the Editor's desk

You’ve probably heard a lot about the climate change talks that were held late last year in Copenhagen. In preparation for that meeting, a group of
scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report documenting the latest evidence that our climate is already changing. The Copenhagen Diagnosis (www.copenhagendiagnosis.com ) includes some startling statistics:

  • Eight of the 10 warmest years on record were the first eight years of this decade.
  • Sea surface temperatures in 2009 were the highest ever recorded.
  • The past three years have had the smallest amount of arctic sea ice ever recorded.
  • Sea level is rising 80 percent faster than originally predicted due to climate change.

Since it’s clear that climate change has begun, what will this mean for Pennsylvania’s plants and animals? Will they be able to survive as climate change intensifies? It depends.

mile-a-minute weed
Mile-a-minute quickly grows over native plants
Photo: Jessica Sprajcar, DCNR)

For some species it won’t be a big deal. Those that can live in a wide range of
conditions will just go with the flow. Unfortunately, a lot of invasive species, like the mile-a-minute vine shown here, fall into this category. Some may even do better because of decreased competition from species that can’t take the heat.

There will be other species that can’t live under these new conditions and will begin moving to more favorable climates in the north and at higher elevations.
Climigration, as it’s sometimes called, has occurred many times in our planet’s history, most recently when the glaciers retreated during the last ice age. The difference this time, however, is that we’ve greatly fragmented the natural habitats that will serve as climigration corridors and refuges.

The third possible outcome is the most unpleasant – extinction. There are species with specific habitat requirements and limited mobility that aren’t likely to fare well as the climate changes. We don’t know yet which species will be
most at risk, but the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program is conducting research to identify them (www.dcnr.state.pa.us/wrcp/wildnotes/summer09/pnhp1-summer09.html).

Since there seems to be little doubt that climate change has begun, have we seen any changes in animal and plant populations yet? We sure have. Since climate change is most pronounced in the polar regions, that’s where the most dramatic changes are occurring. The Brant goose, a common bird found along the Pacific coast of North America, historically summered in Alaska and wintered in Mexico, but that’s changing. Warmer air and sea surface temperatures have reduced winter ice cover, thereby making eel grass, which is their primary food source, available year-round. As a result, one out of every three Brant geese no longer migrates and lives year round in Alaska.
Those that do migrate often stop short and spend the winter far north of Mexico.

American Robin
American robin
Photo: Wikipedia

There’s also evidence of climate change closer to home. The Audubon Society has looked at bird distribution in the U.S. over the last 40 years
(birdsandclimate.audubon.org) and found that 60 percent of North American bird species have shifted their winter range to the north. While the average shift has been 35 miles, some of the moves have been much more significant. The American robin has shifted more than 200 miles, and the turkey is now found a whopping 400 miles further north.

These are just a few early indicators of the major impacts climate change will have on our species, ecosystems, and habitats. That’s why most state
conservation organizations, including WRCP, are now beginning to view much of their conservation work through the lens of climate change.

If you have a climate change topic you would like us to cover in a future issue of Wild! Notes, send me an email at gczarnecki@state.pa.us.

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