Jun 24, 2019 | Updated: 04:51 PM EDT

Climate Change is Intensely Affecting the Sea's Cold-blooded Creatures

Jun 07, 2019 02:09 PM EDT


As the world's average temperatures creep higher, marine animals are far more vulnerable to extinction than their earthbound counterparts, according to a new analysis of more than 400 cold-blooded species. With fewer ways to seek refuge from warming, ocean-dwelling species are disappearing from their habitats at twice the rate of those on land, notes the research published Wednesday in the Journal Nature.

The study, led by researchers from New Jersey's Rutgers University, is the first to compare the impacts of higher temperatures in the ocean and on land for a range of cold-blooded wildlife, from fish and mollusks to lizards and dragonflies.

While previous research has suggested warm-blooded animals are better at adapting to climate change than cold-blooded ones, this study punctuates the special risk for sea creatures. As the oceans continue to absorb heat trapped in the atmosphere from carbon dioxide pollution, bringing waters to their warmest point in decades, undersea dwellers don't have the luxury of ducking into a shady spot or a burrow.

"Marine animals live in an environment that, historically, hasn't changed the temperature all that much," says Malin Pinsky, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Rutgers who led the research. "It's a bit like ocean animals are driving a narrow mountain road with temperature cliffs on either side."

The scientists calculated "thermal safety margins" for 88 marine and 318 terrestrial species, determining how much warming they can tolerate and how much exposure they have to those heat thresholds. The safety margins were slimmest near the equator for ocean dwellers and near the mid-latitudes on land. For many, the heat is already too much. At the warm edges of the marine species' ranges, the study found, more than half had disappeared from the historical territory as a result of warming. The rate for these local extinctions is twice that seen on land.

"These impacts are already happening. It's not some abstract future problem," Pinsky says.

The narrow safety margins for tropical marine animals, such as colorful damselfish and cardinalfish, average about 10 degrees Celsius. "That sounds like a lot," Pinsky says, "but the key is that populations actually go extinct long before they experience 10 degrees of warming."

Even just a degree or half-degree boost, he adds, can lead to trouble finding food, reproducing, and other devastating effects. While some species will be able to migrate to new territory, others-coral and sea anemones, for example-can't move and will simply go extinct.

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