May 14, 2009

Animals moving north due to climate change

A study conducted by three U.S. universities suggests some Michigan mammals are moving northward, apparently in response to climate change.

Scientists from the University of Michigan, Ohio's Miami University and Michigan State University said the northward range expansion of the historically southern species might have a significant impact, with similar movements reported in Wisconsin, Canada and at Yosemite National Park.

We're talking about the commonest mammals there, mammals that have considerable ecological impact, said University of Michigan Professor Philip Myers, the study's lead author. "They disperse seeds, they eat seeds, they eat the insects that kill trees, they disperse the fungus that grows in tree roots that is necessary for trees to grow, and they're the prey base for a huge number of carnivorous birds, mammals and snakes. But we don't know enough about their natural history to know whether replacing a northern species with a southern equivalent is going to pass unnoticed or is going to be catastrophic. It could work either way.

What we can say is that the potential is there for serious changes to happen, and it would be really smart of us to figure it out, but that will require a lot of detailed, focused ecological research, he said.

The research appears in the June issue of the journal Global Change Biology.