Too hot to handle: investigating birds’ heat tolerance sheds light on their ability to adapt to climate change

Gambels_Quail_RWD
A Gambel’s quail (Credit: Dick Daniels. CC BY 3.0)

In January 2014 more than 100,000 megabats died in the Australian state of Queensland. The cause? Heat.

That summer, a heatwave passed through Queensland causing temperatures to reach highs of nearly 45°C (113°F). Unable to cope with the extreme heat and subsequent dehydration, megabats, or flying foxes as they’re known locally, started dropping from the sky. On one extremely hot day, researchers recorded at least 45,500 dead bats in southeast Queensland.

“Most of the stuff you read about on climate change [talks about] average monthly temperature or average annual temperature rising by two degrees. But what’s also going to happen is the occurrence of extreme events is going to increase—in frequency and in intensity,” says Dr. Alex Gerson, an assistant professor in the department of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “So what’s a desert going to look like in 100 years? Is it going to be devoid of birds completely or is something going to be able to make it?” Continue reading

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How to make rice healthier for you and the environment

Credit: Rob & Dani (CC BY 2.0)
Credit: Rob & Dani (CC BY 2.0)

What do congee, paella, risotto, and chimichangas have in common?

Rice.

Nearly half of the world’s population eats rice on a daily basis, making it a staple food for roughly 3.5 billion people. As delicious and filling as rice is, it is also the main source of arsenic for humans and its cultivation is one of the greatest contributors of methane emissions in the atmosphere. Two papers published last week in the journals PLoS ONE and Nature highlight the most recent efforts by researchers to find solutions for rice’s arsenic and methane problems. Continue reading

Animals can adapt, but not enough to stay ahead of climate change

On Friday, NASA issued a news release stating that 2014 was the warmest year on record. Two groups of scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) independently arrived at this conclusion after analyzing surface temperature measurements from over 6,300 sites all over the world collected over the past year. Since 1880, the average surface temperature on Earth has risen by roughly 0.8°C or 1.4°F. As temperatures continue to climb, ecosystems and animals are forced to adapt or risk becoming endangered.

This map shows how temperatures have changed between 1950 and 2014 in different parts of the world. Orange indicates a rise in temperature. Blue indicates a drop in temperature. (Source)
This map shows how temperatures have changed between 1950 and 2014 in different parts of the world. Orange indicates a rise in temperature. Blue indicates a drop in temperature. (Source)

Cold-blooded animals, or ectotherms, rely on environmental heat sources to help their bodies reach an optimal temperature. Because their bodily functions are directly linked to and influenced by external temperatures, rises and fluctuations in temperature pose a serious challenge to ectotherms.

To better predict how resilient cold-blooded animals are to climate change, Australian researchers at the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland combed through over 4,000 papers looking for data on how ectotherms change their physiology in response to changes in external temperature. They used data from 205 studies published between 1968 and 2012 to generate the largest database on physiological adaptability in cold-blooded animals. Continue reading