Climate change isn’t only hammering species that live in cold places

Global warming isn't just affecting animals like polar bears and walruses. Action is also needed to save species such as African wild dogs, which are adapted to hot weather, warns Daniella Rabaiotti.

WHEN you consider the effects of climate change on wildlife, what comes to mind? Perhaps a polar bear or a walrus perched on a melting iceberg. Maybe you envision coral bleached white as sea temperatures rise. What you probably didn’t imagine though, is climate change’s impact on an African wild dog.

Simone Rotella

My first encounter with the species was in Laikipia, Kenya, back in 2012. An African wild dog emerged from a nearby bush, sporting a very fetching GPS collar. His exquisite tan, black and white markings immediately caught my eye, and I fell in love with the joyful vocalisations of the pack that emerged around him. Little did I know that just two years later, I would begin nine years of research into these animals, during which time I would use data from that very dog.

African wild dogs might not be the obvious poster species for climate change – they inhabit the tropics, far from melting ice or warming oceans, living across vast stretches of Africa. Yet as I, with colleagues at the Zoological Society of London and elsewhere, began to look for temperature impacts on the species, there was no shortage of evidence.

Initially, my colleagues discovered that when it is hot during the crucial three months when African wild dogs raise their pups in dens, fewer pups survive until adulthood. My colleagues and I then found that, at our site in Laikipia, hotter denning periods resulted in longer intervals between litters, and that adult survival was lower after periods of hot weather.

We found a relationship between wild dog behaviour and temperature, with hot weather leading to less daytime activity, when these carnivores do most of their hunting. We think they get less food in hot weather, leading to impacts on reproduction and potentially survival.

Finally, just last year, colleagues in Botswana found that high temperatures in one denning period were correlated with wild dogs breeding later the next year, causing the denning period to fall at a hotter time of year.

All this research highlights how high temperatures harm the species. When I brought these results together, modelling the impact of future climate change scenarios on our study population in Kenya, large negative population impacts were predicted. With warming in line with a 3°C temperature increase by 2070, our study population was predicted to collapse within the next 75 years.

Sweeping impacts on species adapted to hot weather aren’t unique to African wild dogs. One research group in South Africa has found multiple impacts of high temperatures on the southern pied babbler in Africa’s Kalahari desert. In hot weather, these birds hunt less successfully, feeding their chicks less, leading to fewer reaching adulthood – a similar story to the one we have pieced together for the African wild dog.

Thorough assessments of climate risks like these were only possible because of detailed, long-term studies, which are increasingly difficult in today’s short-term funding environment. As a result, in-depth work into the links between behavioural change at high temperatures and climate change impacts on survival and reproduction only exists for a handful of species.

We don’t know how many species will be similarly affected – changing their behaviour in hot weather in a way that negatively affects survival or reproduction to the extent it threatens entire populations. It is certainly a lot more than we have quantified the threats for to date. But through close and careful observation of species, we can identify climate risks, integrate climate change into our conservation planning and work to reduce its impacts before it is too late.

Daniella Rabaiotti is at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology

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