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Climate Change Is Making Some Species Of Animals Shape-Shift

A starling sits in the cherry tree blooms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. Researchers say some starlings has seen an increase in bill size.
Paul Morigi
Getty Images
A starling sits in the cherry tree blooms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. Researchers say some starlings has seen an increase in bill size.

Humans are not the only ones adapting to the effects of global climate change.

Animals are also adapting to the environmental changes — as some warm-blooded animals are beginning to "shapeshift" their bodies in response to shifts in climate, according to a recent study in Trends in Ecology & Evolution led by Sara Ryding, a researcher at Deakin University in Australia.

In the study, researchers identified new evidence that supports the theory that some warm-blooded animals are experiencing changes to their bodies due to the rising temperatures, resulting in larger legs, ears and beaks in some cases.

The researchers noted that according to a principle known as "Allen's Rule," warm-blooded animals living in colder climates tend to have smaller appendages (like beaks or legs) than animals of the same species living in warmer climates.

"A lot of the time when climate change is discussed in mainstream media, people are asking 'can humans overcome this?', or 'what technology can solve this?'," Ryding said in a news release from Cell Press.

She said that just like humans, animals also have to adapt to climate changes, as shapeshifting for some of the warm-blooded animals are occurring over a far shorter timescale than would usually be expected.

"The climate change that we have created is heaping a whole lot of pressure on them, and while some species will adapt, others will not," Ryding said.

Some of the most compelling evidence of anatomical change was found in birds in Australia and North America, according to researchers.

Certain species of Australian parrots have demonstrated about 4%–10% increase in the size of their bills since 1871, which researchers attribute to rising temperatures.

In North America, the dark-eyed junco also has seen an increase in bill size. Larger beaks help birds dissipate excess body heat more effectively, the study said, which is a useful trait as global temperatures rise.

It's often difficult to determine why, exactly, a species evolves in a certain way. But according to Cell Press, the researchers said they're seeing this trend in many different types of species and locations — and experiencing climate change is what they all have in common.

"Shapeshifting does not mean that animals are coping with climate change and that all is 'fine,'" Ryding said. "It just means they are evolving to survive it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.