Climate Change Is Interfering With the Timing of Interactions Between Species

Professor Heather Kharouba wearing a pink shirt is outdoors, crouching amid green grass

Professor Heather Kharouba

Department of Biology

Predicting the impacts of global change on biodiversity have been a very prominent topic for conservation ecologists and biologists. This challenge motivated Professor Kharouba to focus her research on understanding the causes and consequences of species responses to climate change. Her latest research, using two different types of data, demonstrates the impacts that climate change is having on the seasonal timing of key biological events- known as phenology. Timing is everything in nature. Bees have to be around and flowers have to bloom at the same time for pollination to work and hawks need to migrate at the same time as their prey. Climate change is interfering with that timing.

Using a new global database they put together on the seasonal timing of key biological events for pair-wise species interactions between 1951 and 2013, Professor Kharouba and her colleagues recently found that shifts in the relative timing between these events of interacting species, such as predator versus prey and plant versus pollinator, and across both terrestrial and aquatic habitats, are greater in magnitude than before recent climate change began. This suggests that there will be widespread climate change-related shifts in the synchrony of species interactions in the future.

Kharouba and her team have also shown the impacts of climate change on the phenology of insects and plants using natural history collections (NHCs). These collections give us the ability to reveal trends that are not always observable from other data sources, and provide information about changes at a broader spatial and temporal scale. For example, Prof. Kharouba’s team has shown how sensitive the timing of flowering and insect flight has been to changes in temperature across British Columbia and all of Canada. These findings indicate that the effects of climatic warming on the timing of key biological events of critical taxonomic groups, plants and insects, will be widespread.

Prof. Kharouba’s research shows the enormous potential and value of NHCs for examining insect responses at multiple temporal, spatial and phylogenetic scales. Promising opportunities for future research is the use of NHC specimens for their morphological, chemical and genomic information to investigate ecological and evolutionary responses to global change.

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