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Next On Its Way To Extinction: Mountain Birds

Birds adapted to live within narrow temperature bands — in regions without wide seasonal variations — may be particularly vulnerable to climate change

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Handout picture released in Lima by the Peruvian Commission for the Promotion of Export and Tourism (PROMPERU), showing a hummingbird spotted during the Birding Rally Challenge taking place in the northern Peruvian mountain jungle close to the city of Tarapoto on June 12, 2013. VOA

A meticulous re-creation of a three-decade-old study of birds on a mountainside in Peru has given scientists a rare chance to prove how the changing climate is pushing species out of the places they are best adapted to.

Surveys of more than 400 species of birds in 1985 and then in 2017 have found that populations of almost all had declined, as many as eight had disappeared completely, and nearly all had moved to higher elevations in what scientists call “an escalator to extinction.”

“Once you move up as far as you can go, there’s nowhere else left,” said John W. Fitzpatrick, a study author and director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “On this particular mountain, some ridgetop bird populations were literally wiped out.”

It’s not certain whether the birds shifted ranges because of temperature changes, or indirect impacts, such as shifts in the ranges of insects or seeds that they feed on.

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A gull flies with the “Dents du Midi” multi-summited mountain as background on July 3, 2016 in Montreux, Switzerland. VOA

These findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirm what biologists had long suspected, but had few opportunities to confirm. The existence of a 1985 survey of birds on the same mountain gave scientists a rare and useful baseline.

Past research has documented habitats of birds and other species moving up in elevation or latitude in response to warming temperatures. But Mark Urban, director of the Center of Biological Risk at the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the study said it was the first to prove what climate change models predicted: that rising temperatures will lead to local extinctions.

“A study like this where you have historical data you can go back to and compare is very rare,” said Urban. “As long as the species can disperse, you will see species marching up the mountain, until that escalator becomes a stairway to heaven.”

In 1985, Fitzpatrick established a basecamp alongside a river running down a mountain slope in southeastern Peru, aiming to catalog the habitat ranges of tropical bird species that lived there. His team spent several weeks trekking up and down the Cerro de Pantiacolla, using fine nets called mist nets to catch and release birds, and keeping detailed journals of birds they caught, spotted or heard chirping in the forests.

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A bird flies past the Humayun’s Tomb shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India. VOA

Two years ago, Fitzpatrick passed his journals, photos and other records to Benjamin Freeman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. Freeman, who has been researching tropical birds for more than a decade, set out to recreate the journey in August and September of 2017. Using old photos of mountain views, his team located the same basecamp.

Freeman largely recreated Fitzpatrick’s path and methodology to see what had happened in the intervening years, a period when average mean temperatures on the mountain rose 0.76 degrees Fahrenheit (0.42 degrees Celsius). Because the mountain lies at the edge of a national park, the area hadn’t been disturbed.

In addition to unfurling 40-foot (12-meter) mist nets on the slopes, Freeman’s team placed 20 microphone boxes on the mountain to record the chirps of birds that might not easily be seen.

“We found that the bird communities were moving up the slope to reach the climate conditions to which they were originally adapted,” said Freeman, the lead author of the study. Near the top of the mountain the bird species moved higher by 321 feet (98 meters), on average.

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It’s not certain whether the birds shifted ranges because of temperature changes

“We think temperature is the master-switch in explaining why species live where they do on mountain slopes,” said Freeman. “A huge majority of species in our study were doing the same thing.”

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Birds adapted to live within narrow temperature bands — in regions without wide seasonal variations — may be particularly vulnerable to climate change, Fitzpatrick said.

“We should expect that what’s happening on this mountaintop is happening more generally in the Andes, and other tropical mountain ranges,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

Denmark Hopes to Set Example for World with Ambitious Scheme to Cut Carbon Emissions by 70%

To be honest, for the climate, even if we just close down our country tomorrow, it wouldn't help much

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Denmark, World, Scheme
FILE - Denmark's Climate and Energy Minister Dan Jorgensen speaks during an interview in Copenhagen, Denmark, Aug.16, 2019. VOA

Denmark’s official in charge of climate matters says his country hopes to set an example for the world with an ambitious scheme to cut carbon emissions by 70% in little more than a decade, but it has no illusions that it can have a meaningful impact on global warming by itself.

“To be honest, for the climate, even if we just close down our country tomorrow, it wouldn’t help much,” Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s top climate and energy official, told VOA during a visit to Washington this week. “I guess you can argue: Does it really matter what you do?”

Jørgensen said Denmark accounts for just 0.1% of the world’s carbon emissions, a drop in the bucket compared with emissions from the largest polluters such as China, the United States and India. But he said, “The reason we do these things anyway is that if we succeed in doing that, then hopefully we’ll inspire others.”

Jørgensen, who will be in New York next week to promote his country’s climate agenda at the United Nations, said his country hopes to demonstrate that it can carry out a green transformation and still be competitive in the global marketplace. In the process, it expects to develop new technologies that “other countries can also use.”

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People hold placards during the Global Climate Strike at Raadhuspladsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Sept. 20, 2019. VOA

Stages of debate

According to Jørgensen, the climate debate in Denmark has gone through several stages since the issue started to enter the public’s consciousness about 15 or 20 years ago.

At that time, he said, some in Denmark still questioned how real climate change was and whether humans had anything to do with it. That was followed by a period in which the public by and large understood that climate change was real, but some remained reluctant to devote resources to the problem, concerned that efforts by Denmark alone would be futile.

Now, he said, most people agree on the nature of the problem. Looking out the window, “they see droughts, they see flooding, they see extreme weather phenomena,” he said. “We are also a nation that’s closely connected to Greenland,” one of the places where climate change is most evident in the form of melting glaciers.

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With that consensus, the debate has shifted to an energetic discussion about the best policy instruments to address the problem.

The issue so dominated Danish general elections in June that the campaign has been described as the country’s “first climate election,” with the question of how to achieve a green transformation topping the agenda in debates among the candidates for prime minister and other posts.

Looking beyond Denmark, Jørgensen said Denmark and its partners in the European Union were sad to see the United States withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and hope it will reconsider. “There’s nothing I would hope more than the U.S. taking leadership on the global stage also on green issues,” he said.

Join the battle

Denmark, World, Scheme
Denmark’s official in charge of climate matters says his country hopes to set an example for the world with an ambitious scheme to cut carbon emissions by 70% in little more than a decade. Pixabay

Meanwhile, Jørgensen said, all countries and especially the “big growing economies” must join in the battle to prevent climate change “from becoming irreversible and having the most catastrophic consequences.”

But he acknowledges the frustration of newly developing countries, which are only now acquiring energy-intensive amenities that the developed nations have long enjoyed.

“It’s not up to us who’ve been polluting and emitting greenhouse gases for more than 100 years — when I say us, I mean the West, the United States, Europe — it’s not up to us to tell them, ‘No, you cannot drive a car, you cannot buy a fridge or an air conditioner, no, you can’t start to eat meat a few times a week because you can afford it all of a sudden because you’ve come out of poverty.’ ”

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Rather, he said, it is up to Denmark and the other developed countries to say, “Can we help you in any way to make that growth green?” (VOA)