new study by the U.S. Geological Survey and its partners has identified
situations and conditions where some animals display behavioral flexibility –
the ability to rapidly change behavior in response to short or long-term
environmental changes such as climate variability.
three primary types of successful response to new environmental conditions
involve species moving, adapting or acclimating to the changing conditions.
have been studying animal behavior in response to various environmental changes
for multiple centuries, but this study is the first attempt to systematically
and comprehensively identify the circumstances in which animal species have
been found to exhibit behavioral flexibility in response to changing climatic
that species must cope with variability in environmental conditions over
multiple time scales, behavioral flexibility can allow some animals a means by
which to rapidly and effectively cope with such variability, yet without
committing to more-permanent characteristics that won’t always be beneficial,”
said the study’s lead author, USGS researcher Erik Beever.
performed a worldwide literature search and found 186 studies that identify
situations where animals displayed behavior flexibility as a way of coping with
climate variability. The most common behavioral response exhibited by species
involved changing the timing of life events such as laying eggs, giving birth,
mating or starting migration. Such behavioral flexibility was found most
frequently among studies of invertebrates, followed by birds, mammals,
reptiles, amphibians and fishes.
percent of the studies point to aspects of temperature as the most-likely
driving force of behavioral changes. In contrast, factors such as
precipitation, changes in food sources or habitat, relative humidity, and wind
were less frequently associated with the behavioral changes.
study highlighted the American pika as an example of a species that copes with
climatic variability by occasionally using many of these flexible behaviors.
Pikas are typically limited to high-elevation, cool and moist rocky habitats in
the mountains of western North America. However, in areas that have complex
habitat, they employ a suite of behaviors to avoid and accommodate climatic
stress, including changes in foraging strategy, habitat use and heat-regulating
postures. Although pikas have experienced climate-related declines in some
parts of their range, behavioral flexibility may allow other populations of
pikas to make use of alternative habitats in seemingly unsuitable landscapes.
animals must also engage in other activities essential for survival and
reproduction, behavioral responses to environmental changes may be limited by
such trade-offs and thus may allow species to accommodate more-extreme
conditions only up to a certain point. Consequently, there remain unknowns
regarding, for example, how species will respond to ongoing and increased
climatic variability and higher frequency of extreme-weather events.
study also illustrates how managers can incorporate an improved understanding
of behavioral flexibility into natural-resource management and policy
further work can refine particular applications and implementation, our study
provided a number of examples of how wildlife and natural-resource managers can
capitalize on better understanding of behavioral flexibility to more
strategically manage animal species,” said Beever.
article, published online this week in Frontiers in Ecology and the
Environment, is titled “Behavior as a mechanism for coping with climate
change,” and can be viewed at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/fee.1502/full
project was funded in part by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife