JCU science study finds species turn refugees to escape climate extremes

JCU science researchers study refugee species


Species threatened by climate change may turn into refugees and seek refuge from the heat in small habitats within rainforests.

A new study published in Global Change Biology shows that small habitats within rainforest vegetation should provide relief from extreme temperatures.

JCU science
Study science at JCU

JCU science’s lead researcher Brett Scheffers from James Cook University Townsville campus said that while such habitats were small in size they provide big returns for the species that use them.

“These small habitats, known as microhabitats, include tree holes, logs, and plants that exist within the rainforest strata and they provide cooler temperatures within them than the air that surrounds them,” Mr Scheffers, from JCU’s Centre for Tropical Biology and Climate Change, said.

“In some ways these habitats serve as refuges for refugees. The refugees here are species that have to flee their normal habitats because the habitats are no longer livable.

“With climate change, commonly used habitats are simply becoming too hot.”

The study looked at the climate within numerous microhabitats located from ground to the upper canopy in the rainforests of the Philippines. They compared these climates to the surrounding environment as well as the thermal limits of frogs and reptiles that frequently use them.

The authors found that buffered microhabitats can reduce the vulnerability of animal communities to extreme events by more than a hundred-fold.

“Although this study offers a glimmer of hope that species may be able to escape the heat, we are urging caution,” Mr Scheffers said, “because extreme events are incredibly unpredictable and may be more extreme than the temperatures we considered in our study.”

There have been numerous examples of widespread death of animals that could not find refuge. The JCU science researcher explained that during recent heat waves across Australia, bat species like flying-foxes and bird species such as Carnaby’s Cockatoos died by the hundreds and possibly thousands.

“Animals are adapted for specific temperatures.”

The study, involving JCU science researchers, the National University of Singapore, the University of Sheffield and the National Museum of the Philippines, shows that animals may be able to hide out under short-term heat waves but ultimately as annual temperatures continue to rise animals will be forced to flee to cooler areas.

“Our study is a cautionary tale. Biodiversity is resilient and adaptive,” Mr Scheffers said, but warned that with future forecasts predicting annual temperature increases of up to 4-6 degrees Celsius and in some areas extreme temperatures that surpass 40 degrees Celsius, there are simply no habitats cool enough to safeguards species from such extremes.

Master of Science (Tropical Biology and Conservation)

In this 1.5-year JCU science program, all aspects of theoretical and applied ecology are considered, making full use of the wide variety of natural tropical environments surrounding JCU including savannahs, rainforests, wetlands, and coastal marine habitats.

These tropical biology programs offer a wide range of electives. Students can structure their courses to specialize in the ecology of rainforests, savannah, tropical freshwater systems, tropical wildlife, or tropical insects.

Entry requirements: Completion of a Bachelor of Science


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