From the bottom of the climate barrel comes a plaintive cry, “Climate change could see elephants’ ears grow larger as animals ‘shape-shift’ to survive, study suggests”. How long has our “heating planet” been forcing animals to shape-shift? Because if it’s less than, say, 50 years, we’re not buying this new flappier elephant. Elephants, we remind the climate scientist armed with a Bachelor’s degree in music and, he boasts, a “Full UK Driver’s License”, who wrote that story in The Independent, live up to 70 years and indeed gestate for two years. So they’re not exactly in the rapid turnaround business and any visible evolutionary changes must involve processes taking place over a much longer period of time than that in which a fraction of a degree of warming is alleged to have been caused by humans. But that didn’t apparently register on the expert whose expertise yielded the latest expert pronouncement: “‘Climate change could be causing animals around the world to grow larger ears, beaks and tails, according to a new study, as our heating planet forces them to rapidly ‘shape-shift’ in order to survive.”
The article includes the phrase “with a third of species possibly facing extinction” which invites the riposte “unless they’re not”. The Earth is home to uncounted millions of species and most of them will still be here when this young person is old because at present the actual rate of verified extinction from all causes is extremely low.
In citing this figure he was actually referencing another Independent story, also featuring an image of elephants because they are charismatic megafauna, claiming “Climate crisis: One-third of all plant and animal species could be extinct in 50 years, study suggests”. And you can go as far down that rabbit hole of could and might and suggests as you care to, including that it relied on 538 species at 581 sites studied at least 10 years apart and “found 44 per cent of the 538 species had already gone extinct at one or more of the sites they had earlier inhabited” as though if we didn’t burn fossil fuels critters would sit still. “No longer at that spot” is not a synonym for “extinct” and anyone who does not understand this point ought not to comment on it.
Jim Steele did a video giving the journalism on this ear- and beak-inflating study the smackdown, and pummeling the study into the bargain. And for our part, we’re going to ignore the mass extinction not currently underway and explore instead the big-eared story’s claim that “In a phenomenon known as Allen’s Rule, animals in warmer climates tend to have larger appendages – such as ears, beaks, legs and tails – which they can use to dissipate heat.” Sure. It’s called adaptation, and the article makes clear that animals do it all the time and seem pretty effective at it. The study basically said that animals have migrated and evolved when climates change for a long time (hence the formulation of this rule by Joel Asaph Allen in 1877) so the present situation is not at all unprecedented.
For instance, the study says, “Australian parrots have shown, on average, a 4%–10% increase in bill surface area since 1871”. Which is a remarkably fast adaptation. And if you’re going to blame it all on man-made climate change, then tell us, when did it start exactly? Whenever makes for a scary story, apparently. Even though as we recently noted, sea surface temperatures at the Great Barrier Reef have increased exactly not at all since 1871, leading to much larger research grants.
To be fair, the study actually says the situation is totally unclear, with sentences like “It can be difficult to predict how much temperature change is required for shape-shifting to occur because research is still broadly lacking.” And “Because appendages are often multifunctional, ecological factors other than temperature and thermoregulation are likely to contribute to appendage size.” Of course global warming gets blamed anyway: “Climate change is driving increased temperatures across the globe, and animals are responding in a myriad of ways.” However “Changes in ambient temperature and Allen’s rule’s widespread occurrence in endotherms are likely to be critical in predicting shape-shifting; however, research on this is currently lacking.”
Therefore even more research money is needed for what we personally do: “continued study that combines multiple information sources, such as long-term field data, analysis of museum specimens, molecular data, and temporal trends, needs to be prioritised”.