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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Large mammals aren’t getting enough attention (for once)

Guest Post by Dani Rabaiotti 

Large mammals get an awful lot of attention. People love a fluffy, charismatic, animal, and their large size often makes them comparatively easier to study, and an awful lot of time, effort and money goes into conserving charismatic large mammals. As a result, there are systematic biases towards large mammals in conservation research, in the media, across social media (guilty), and in the amount of money raised both through charities and grants. Whilst most people think of large African megafauna when they hear large mammals, they are actually making a comeback in Europe: numbers of wolves, bears, and lynx are increasing across most of the continent and, in some areas, these animals are even expanding their ranges.

This leads me onto one area of research where…possibly (hear me out here!)…large mammals might be overlooked. A lot of the focus on climate change response research has been into reptiles and amphibians, which have physiological traits that mean their behaviour and/or breeding is directly dependant on temperature, or species like corals, which have been identified as most at risk. Low down on the list of climate change impact studies are large mammals. A fairly large number of correlative studies have been done, where researchers look at where species live now and what the climatic conditions are, and use it to project where they could live under climate change. Far fewer studies have looked at the mechanisms by which large mammals might be affected by temperature changes.

African Wild Dog. Photo contributed by Dani Rabaiotti.
It could be argued, however, that large mammals may be disproportionately at risk. Due to their size, large mammals need a lot of resources and as a result generally need big territories to survive. Large mammals are disproportionately threatened compared to small mammals, in part due to global habitat loss, but also because they are more likely to come into conflict with humans, and be persecuted as a result: think large carnivores eating livestock or elephants eating crops. This also means that, as the climate warms, many species have no-where to move to (many plants and animals will move to cooler areas to avoid rising temperatures). In my study species, the African wild dog, for example, it has already been extirpated from over 90 percent of its former range through habitat loss and human conflict – there is no other ‘range’ for it to shift to. On top of this, large mammals take a really long time to reproduce, meaning that if they need to adapt to climate change, it has to be through behaviour and not evolution.

Because of this, it is really important that we understand the responses of large mammals to changes in temperature. This can be challenging as, unlike many smaller species, you can’t stick an elephant in a lab and heat it up to see what happens. The fields of herpetology, fisheries research, and, to a slightly lesser extend ornithology, have done some great work into how the physiology, behaviour and breeding habits of various species are impacted by climate change. These can be used to gain a mechanistic (that is, the mechanism behind how climate change might effect a species in future) understanding of climate change impacts, and allows the building of more detailed, mechanistic models that don’t just rely on correlation. However, there are far fewer papers of this kind on large mammals.

The good news is we already have a lot of data on large mammals, and where data is missing there are a lot of long-term projects out there. It would be a shame to pour money into conserving large mammals in an area that may be too hot for them to survive in the future, when it may be better directed elsewhere. It would be tragic if the large mammal conservation successes in Europe were lessened by an oversight in research. It is important that people start looking at past datasets, and collecting new datasets with questions on temperature impacts in mind. This would help ensure the future of these species that people know and love so well.

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Dani Rabaiotti is a PhD student studying the impact of climate change on African wild dogs at the Zoological Society of London and UCL.  You can find more about her research here or reach out to her on Twitter @DaniRabaiotti.

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