August 7, 2012
Research from the U.S. Geological Survey documents the climate change adaptation behavior of several animal species in the Rocky Mountains. Some areas of the region, said USGS, have warmed 1.8 times the global average.
Migratory moose adapt to climate change
The effects of climate change and forage availability in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem was the subject of preliminary USGS research which evaluated factors that influenced the timing of spring and fall migration of GPS-collared moose.
Climate change, said USGS, causes food plants to leaf out earlier in the year, potentially affecting migratory animals in search of forage plants ripe for eating.
Researchers found that moose reliably began spring migrations depending on the elevation of their summering habitat. Migrants headed for lower-elevation habitats left winter ranges as much as 60 days earlier in the spring than those destined for higher elevations, suggesting that moose are timing spring migrations to arrive in summering grounds when forage plants are most nutritious.
Interestingly, USGS said that individual moose in the study were very loyal to summer ranges, returning year after year, while they were less picky about winter ranges.
The research indicates that relatively short-distance migratory taxa like moose are fairly adept at tracking the timing of spring across their individual summer ranges, which may allow them to better adapt to phenological changes caused by climate change.
The research was discussed recently in a presentation entitled Moose Migrations Track Summer Range Phenology: Implications for Trophic Mismatch
Species vulnerability, resilience in the warming Rocky Mountains
Separately, details of a recent USGS presentation, The indirect human influence on western mountain environments: Vulnerabilities and resiliencies highlight Rocky Mountain ecosystem vulnerabilities to climate change.
For example, temperature-sensitive native bull trout will travel to montane headwaters in search of cooler waters, restricting their distribution to higher elevations where genetic isolation can occur and open up their home range to invasive species, such as lake trout.
For the snowshoe hare, earlier spring snowmelt makes the species more vulnerable to predators because they are still transitioning from their white pelage.
In addition to vulnerabilities, however, researchers are also observing resilience. The capacity of some organisms to change behavior according to varying environmental conditions, or “behavioral plasticity,” has allowed them to adapt to changing climates and ecosystem processes.
Resiliency is being enhanced, said USGS, by protection of critical habitats such as the North Fork of the Flathead River, a transboundary effort between the U.S. and Canada.