Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Could Climate Change Shrink Arctic Shorebirds?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Could Climate Change Shrink Arctic Shorebirds?

Article excerpt

Honey, we shrunk the shorebirds.

The red knot, a species of bird that breeds in the Arctic, is rapidly changing. These birds have become noticeably smaller with passing generations, a change researchers attribute to warming conditions in the region. Their findings were published Friday in the journal Science.

Red knots incubate their eggs in Arctic snow so that their offspring will hatch just as the insect population peaks. Chicks normally grow up on a steady diet of insects before migrating to their wintering grounds in West Africa. Once there, first-year birds use their bills to dig out burrowed shellfish, which is their main food source.

But due to warming conditions in the Arctic, red knot hatchlings are missing the insect peak. As a result of limited food availability, the average chick simply doesn't grow as large as was typical in previous decades. Smaller birds mean smaller beaks, so migrating juveniles struggle to reach their usual food and often settle for less-nutritious seagrass. Researchers call this effect "trophic mismatch."

"I had never [known] body shrinkage was a becoming a universal response to climate change until we found that our study species was doing so," Jan van Gils, who co-authored the study, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview. "Then I started digging in the literature and found that many species were shrinking."

Dr. van Gils, who is a senior scientist with NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, was part of an international effort to investigate this trend. Until now, researchers have not found overwhelmingly negative consequences of body shrinkage. In fact, some scientists have argued that smaller-bodied animals might dissipate heat more effectively due to a larger surface to volume ratio.

But by linking several different data sets - 33 years of archived data on red knot body size, satellite images to assess snowmelt dates, and survival rates collected annually in Mauritania - researchers were able to show that shrinkage is actually hurting red knot populations. …

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