Plants and Animals Move as Climate Warms

Tornado Science, Facts and History

Climate change has shifted the boundaries of plant and animal habitats, with some birds in the United States extending their boundaries northward and trees moving farther up mountains, new studies show. Between 2000 and 2005, New York state's Department of Environmental Conservation had thousands of volunteers all over the state observe and report the birds they could identify, creating a Breeding Bird Atlas of the various species' breeding ranges. Researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) compared this atlas to another one conducted between 1980 and 1985 for 83 species of birds that traditionally have bred in New York and found that many had extended their range boundaries northward, some by as many as 40 miles (64 kilometers). "But the real signal came out with some of the northerly species that are more common in Canada and the northern part of the U.S.," said Benjamin Zuckerberg, a Ph.D. student at SUNY. "Their southern range boundaries are actually moving northward as well, at a much faster clip." Some of the species making this southern boundary shift are the Nashville warbler, a little bird with a yellow belly; the pine siskin, a common finch that resembles a sparrow; and the red-bellied woodpecker, considered the most common woodpecker in the Southeast. The shifts, announced today, are occurring in a relatively short amount of time, the researchers also pointed out, happening in a matter of decades. These changes are also consistent with the predictions of regional warming, they added. Warming is also forcing some mountain plant species to adapt by moving to higher altitudes as it kills them in their traditional ranges. In Southern California, for example, warming temperatures and longer dry spells have killed thousands of tree and plants, while pushing their habitats an average of 213 feet up the Santa Rosa Mountains over the past 30 years, according to a new study detailed in the Aug. 11 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Previous studies have also catalogued the ways that climate change is knocking the nature out of whack: birds are migrating earlier in the season; reptiles and amphibians are also heading for the hills to reach cooler climes; and the timing of plant blooms is shifting as the Earth heats up.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.