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A Wilder View: Studying how wild animals adjusting to climate change

Posted at 12:28 PM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 15:51:05-04

MISSOULA — Have you ever slept through a thunderstorm or an earthquake? Certain animals may be snoozing through storms -- and that is a good thing.

Natural disasters increasingly affect many parts of the world and can have adverse effects on humans and animals.

Biologists have reported sharks escaping to the open ocean prior to hurricanes, elephants fleeing coastal regions during a tsunami, or birds circumventing a tornado, but the behavior and physiology of animals during storms has never been quantified.

Climatologists predict that changes in global weather patterns will increase the frequency and intensity of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires.

Studies have shown that certain mammals go into a state of torpor -- or a state of drowsiness -- like hibernation as an effective adaptation of animals to survive seasonal food shortages and bad weather.

So, think about animals like squirrels and mice as examples of species that can go into this energy-saving state.

Biologists are now finding these may also be adaptations to deal with unpredictable conditions, such as unseasonal cold spells or famines.

This state of drowsiness allows animals to lower their body temperatures to save energy and usually when the animals are doing this, they are in a sheltered area, so they are also protected from extreme environmental conditions and predation.

Recent extinctions have shown that employing this state of drowsiness called torpor puts these species at a lower risk of extinction than animals that cannot go into this energy-saving state.

This is because the animals that aren’t sheltered and saving energy are still out looking for food even during storms.

Researchers also found that these animals recovered fairly quickly from the impact of storms and usually went back to their normal routine by the next day.

This research is especially important with regard to climate change as an increase in climatic disasters is anticipated in the future and the intensity of storms will likely increase by 2%-to-11% in the next 85 years.

In these conditions, these small species likely have an advantage in comparison to animals that can’t go into this type of hibernation state as they can outlast challenging times such as storms, floods and other natural disasters by reducing their energy needs.

So far studies on this adaptation have been researched with bats and sugar gliders.