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Real-World Species Range-Shifts in Response to Regional Warming
Chen, I.-C., Hill, J.K., Ohlemuller, R., Roy, D.B. and Thomas, C.D. 2011. Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science 333: 1024-1026.

Many people have long been worried -- see Parmeson and Yohe (2003) and Root et al. (2003) -- that predicted rates of greenhouse gas-induced global warming are so great that sometime in the not-too-distant future many species of plants and animals will not be able to migrate poleward in latitude and/or upward in altitude fast enough to avoid extinction. But is this really so?

What was done
In an attempt to explore -- if not answer -- this question, Chen et al. conducted a meta-analysis of close to all available studies of latitudinal species range shifts in Europe, North America and Chile, as well as close to all studies of elevational species range shifts in Europe, North America, Malaysia and Marion Island. This they did for a number of different taxonomic groups that included 763 individual species in the case of latitudinal range shifts and 1367 species in the case of altitudinal shifts.

What was learned
The five researchers report some extremely interesting results in their Science paper. They say they "estimated that the distributions of species have recently shifted to higher elevations at a median rate of 11.0 meters per decade, and to higher latitudes at a median rate of 16.9 kilometers per decade." And they add that "these rates are approximately two and three times faster than previously reported" by Parmeson and Yohe (2003). In addition, they found that "the distances moved by species are greatest in studies showing the highest levels of warming, with average latitudinal shifts being generally sufficient to track temperature change."

Even more interesting, however, were their observations that "for latitudinal studies, on average 22% of the species actually shifted in the opposite direction to that expected," and that in the altitude studies "25% of species shifted downhill rather than to higher elevations" in response to warming. In discussing this aspect of their findings, they write that "at least three processes are likely to generate the high diversity of range shifts among species: time delays in species' responses, individualistic physiological constraints, and alternative and interacting drivers of change."

What it means
All things considered, it would appear that earth's various life forms are well equipped to do whatever they need to do to successfully survive the planet's ever-changing climatic conditions, and that some of those things are not necessarily what we might expect. See also, in this regard, our Major Report The Specter of Species Extinction: Will Global Warming Decimate Earth's Biosphere? And check out our Journal Reviews of Frei et al. (2010) and Crimmins et al. (2011).

Crimmins, S.M., Dobrowski, S.Z., Greenberg, J.A., Abatzoglou, J.T. and Mynsberge, A.R. 2011. Changes in climatic water balance drive downhill shifts in plant species' optimum elevations. Science 331: 324-327.

Frei, E., Bodin, J. and Walther, G.-R. 2010. Plant species' range shifts in mountainous areas -- all uphill from here? Botanica Helvetica 120: 117-128.

Parmesan, C. and Yohe, G. 2003. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421: 37-42.

Root, T.L., Price, J.T., Hall, K.R., Schneider, S.H., Rosenzweig, C. and Pounds, J.A. 2003. Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants. Nature 421: 57-60.

Reviewed 7 December 2011