New book shows how animals are already coping with climate change



Plastic hurricane and squid lizards
Thor hanson
Basic books, $ 28

As a conservation biologist, Thor Hanson saw firsthand the effects of climate change on plants and animals in the wild: Central American green macaws migrating with their food sources, brown bears from Alaska fattening with early berry crops, the conifers of New England seeking refuge from endangered habitats. And as an endearing author who celebrated the wonders of nature in books about feathers, seeds, forests and bees (NS: 07/21/18, p. 28), it is an ideal guide to a topic that might otherwise plunge readers into a pit of despair.

Hanson does not despair in his latest book, Plastic hurricane and squid lizards. While he describes the many ways global warming is changing life on our planet, his tone is not that of a twist of the hands. Instead, Hanson invites the reader into the stories of people, places, and creatures of all kinds. He draws these accounts from his own experiences and those of other scientists, combining reporting with narrative accounts of species that serve as examples of broader trends in the natural world.

A trip to the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, for example, allowed Hanson to relive the experience of tropical ecologist and climatologist Leslie Holdridge, who founded the research station in the 1950s and described, among other things, how the climate creates different habitats, or life zones, as the altitude increases. As Hanson makes his way up the tropical mountainside so he can witness a change in living areas, he notes, “I had to gain every foot of elevation the hard way. I could almost feel the heat he describes as “a steaming towel draped over my head.” Its striking descriptions are reminiscent of why so many species have now been documented moving up slopes to cooler climates.

Hanson doesn’t waste much breath trying to convince skeptics of the reality of climate change, instead showing example after example how it is already unfolding. The book quickly moves from the basic science of climate change to the challenges and opportunities that species face – from seasonal calendar changes to ocean acidification – and the ways in which species respond.

As Hanson notes, the acronym MAD, for “move, adapt, or die,” is often used to describe the response options of species. But this concise sentence does not capture the complexity of the situation. For example, one of its main characters, a lizard struck by back-to-back Caribbean hurricanes in 2017, illustrates a different response. Instead of individual lizards adapting or adapting to increasingly stormy conditions, the species evolved through natural selection. Biologists monitoring lizards on two islands noticed that after hurricanes, lizard populations had longer front legs, shorter hind legs, and more grippy toe pads on average than before. An experiment with a leaf blower has shown that these characteristics help lizards hold onto branches better – survival of the fittest in action.

Ultimately, the results for species will likely be as varied as their circumstances. Some organisms have already moved, adapted, or died from warming, and many more will face the challenges of the changes to come. But Hanson did not give up hope. When it comes to preventing worst-case scenarios, he cites environmentalist Gordon Orians, who is in the seventh decade of a career witnessing environmental change. When asked what a concerned citizen should do to tackle climate change, he succinctly replied, “Whatever you can. And as Hanson points out, that’s exactly how plants and animals respond to climate change: by doing whatever they can. The challenge seems overwhelming, and as a concerned single citizen, a lot of things seem beyond my reach. Still, Hanson’s words inspired me to take inspiration from the rest of the species in this warming world to do what I can.

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