The effect of climate change on endangered species has been wildly underestimated, a new study has found.
A survey of studies has determined that climate change has had a particularly dire effect on mammals and birds on the endangered species list. That includes about half of the mammals and almost a quarter of the birds on the "red list" kept by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study found that about 700 species on the list were affected by the warming planet.
The findings show that climate change is already a major threat to many species on Earth, not at some vague point in the future, said James Watson, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. Watson said most climate studies on biodiversity focus on the effects climate change could have 50 to 100 years from now.
"It's a scientific problem in that we are not thinking about climate change as a present-day problem, we're always forecasting into the future," he said, adding, "When you look at the evidence, there is a massive amount of impact right now."
Currently, IUCN only lists about 7 percent of mammals on the list and 4 percent of birds as being threatened by climate change.
A team of researchers examined about 130 earlier studies. They found the range of animals now affected by climate change is broad, including animals on every continent. Particularly hard hit are animals with highly specialized diets and those that live in high altitudes. But, they found, even those with a wide range of diet are suffering from tremendous declines.
The list includes all species of elephants, eastern gorillas and snow leopards, as well as many types of bird. Animals, such as rodents, that can burrow were better able to adapt to the changes in their habitat.
Animals that breed more slowly, including primates and elephants, or marsupials, which evolved in stable tropical climates, were less able to thrive in a quickly changing environment. The relative stability of their environment means they are more vulnerable to extreme temperatures and storms, researchers found.
Those animals are expected to be harmed even more in the future, said Michela Pacifici of the Global Mammal Assessment program at Sapienza University of Rome and a lead author of the study.
"It is likely that many of these species have a high probability of being very negatively impacted by expected future changes in the climate," she said.
The study shows a significant trend in some of the most researched taxonomic groups, according to Watson. More worrying is how a warming planet is affecting plants and animals that have been subjected to less research.
"We have seriously underestimated the effects of climate change on the most well-known groups, which means those other groups, reptiles, amphibians, fish, plants, the story is going to be much, much worse in terms of what we think the threat is from climate change already," he said.
The study noted that animals in North American and Europe were the most studied. The researchers cautioned that their findings may not be "less generalizable" to animals in Africa and Asia, as well as South America.
Watson said the study should demonstrate to researchers as well as policymakers that the changing planet is already harming animals and that climate change needs to be addressed as an issue now playing out, not something that could happen in the future.