Shapeshifting: It’s something you might associate with tales of supernatural interdimensional beings, perhaps. But, scientists are now saying ordinary earthbound animals are shapeshifting. Now, that doesn’t mean changing shape in front of your eyes, but gradually.
On the other hand, this shapeshifting is happening relatively fast in evolutionary terms. Why are the animals shapeshifting, and how? As it turns out, it’s in all likelihood due to the pressures of climate change. Due to thermoregulatory demands, animals must adapt to regulate their body temperatures or perish.
“Global warming is a big challenge for warm-blooded animals, which must maintain a constant internal body temperature. As anyone who’s experienced heatstroke can tell you, our bodies become severely stressed when we overheat,” wrote study authors Sara Ryding and Matthew Symonds.
Which Animals are Shapeshifting?
A new study found that warm-blooded species’ appendages are becoming bigger and longer due to rising temperatures. Also, some cold-blooded ectotherms may change similarly.
“…we identified multiple examples of animals that are most likely ‘shape-shifters’ – including species in Australia. The pattern is widespread, and suggests climate warming may result in fundamental changes to animal form,” they write.
Animals have been found shapeshifting in regions all over the world, including North America.
- Australian parrots and whistlers have been increasing bill size over 150 years.
- Bats are getting bigger wings, ears, tails, and legs.
- Wood mice are evolving longer tails.
- Masked shrews are evolving longer legs and tails.
- North American dark-eyed junco’s bills are increasing in size.
- American house sparrows now have larger beaks.
- Galapagos finches with bigger beaks (Darwin would be proud)
- New Zealand house sparrows are getting bigger beaks.
- Australian starlings are growing larger bills.
- Australian rabbits have larger ears in relation to body mass, but their feet remain unchanged.
Other Animals Likely to Change Shape
Further, the researchers suggest predictions about some other species likely to change:
“These include (with some caveats) starlings, song sparrows, and a host of seabirds and small mammals, such as South American gracile opossums.”
Backing up Allen’s Rule from 1877
The finding backs up an old ecogeographical rule by Joel Asaph Allen, one of America’s leading naturalists over 140 years ago. Back then, the theory of natural selection was still new.
Since 1877, Allen’s rule has stated that “animals that are adapted to colder climates tend to have shorter limbs and body appendages in comparison to animals that are adapted to more warm climates.”
As you would expect, animals in cold climates need to conserve heat. Thus, appendages with smaller surface areas help avoid losing body heat. On the other hand, animals in hot climates may evolve large appendages.
For example, hares and foxes have bigger ears in hot climates that help with dissipating heat. In the cold, ears get progressively smaller. Similarly, elephants have huge ears to help deal with the scorching sun. On the back of the ears, blood vessels circulate, allowing heat to escape.
Now, just how big are elephants’ ears going to get as Earth gets hotter and hotter?
“Prominent appendages such as ears are predicted to increase, so we might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future,” remarked the study’s author, Sara Ryding, from Deakin University.
Can Shapeshifting Save Animals from Climate Change?
It’s amazing to know animals are shapeshifting to survive the changing climate over such a relatively brief timeline.
However, Sara warns that this “does not mean that animals are coping with climate change and that all is fine..”
“It just means they are evolving to survive it, but we’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or that all species are capable of changing and surviving.”
Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicated little time left to avert “catastrophic global warming.” Thus, it’s important to curb CO₂ and other greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero now.
In all probability, not even shapeshifting into Dumbo the elephant will be enough.
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