Global warming isn’t only affecting animals like polar bears and emperor penguins. African wild dog populations may also collapse due to climate change
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When people think of animals that could be driven extinct by climate change, they usually think of polar bears and, perhaps these days, emperor penguins, both of which are struggling to survive due to the lack of sea ice at the poles. But a newly published study by a team of researchers based in Great Britain finds that African wild dogs will likely go extinct too if average global temperatures increase by more than 3°C (5.4°F).
The African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, also known as the painted dog or Cape hunting dog, is an endangered wild canine native to sub-Saharan Africa where it inhabits savannas and arid regions. A previous study – which took place at sites in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe – found that intentional and unintentional killing by humans, as well as disease spread by domestic dogs, accounted for 44% of all African wild dog deaths at the study sites between 2002 and 2017 (ref).
This most recent study was based on information about painted dogs’ survival and breeding that was gathered from the Kenya subpopulation over a period of 16 years. This data was used to construct a computer model that runs population simulations under various demographic parameters and temperature scenarios. These computer models showed population declines of approximately 40% under a 1°C temperature increase and a complete population collapse at a temperature increase of 3°C or higher — a scenario that could possibly occur by 2070.
Already, Earth’s average temperature has increased by at least 1.1°C (1.9°F) since 1880, according to an ongoing temperature analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).
“The severity of the impact even surprised me — around the middle case scenario the model predicts catastrophic population collapse,” said the study’s lead author, quantitative ecologist Daniella Rabaiotti, a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and Honorary Research Fellow at University College London.
“The model predicts that wild dogs are able to maintain the number of breeding individuals in the population under 1-3 degrees of warming, but, above that threshold, the number of packs — and the entire population — collapses,” Dr Rabaiotti elaborated on Twitter (otherwise known as x, lol.)
Behavioral data gathered from the Kenya subpopulation also revealed that under higher temperatures, the wild dogs limit their daytime activities thereby reducing their hunting opportunities whilst also increasing their risk of contracting diseases.
Further, Dr Rabaiotti and collaborators also found that adult painted dogs not only have lower survival rates during heatwaves but the number of pups surviving to adulthood under hotter conditions would not be sufficient to replace the number of adults that die.
“The predicted population collapse is driven by the fact that, above a certain temperature threshold, too few pups are surviving to adulthood, leading to packs, and subsequently the entire population, collapsing,” Dr Rabaiotti explained. Replacement of lost packs is driven by dispersing individuals that establish new packs, Dr Rabaiotti noted, but as temperatures increase, both new packs, and the population as a whole, still shrinks.
Will similar effects be seen in other animal species as climate change continues?
“This kind of detailed, long term data, doesn’t exist for many species — so we don’t know how extensive these kinds of impacts will be,” Dr Rabaiotti pointed out. “This work would not have been possible without the long term dataset generated by the Samburu-Laikipia Wild Dog Project — this type of project is getting harder and harder to fund due to short term funding cycles.”
Although the study was based on information collected from the Kenya subpopulation, other subpopulations in Botswana and Zimbabwe could also be affected similarly by increasing temperatures.
“As ever, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change without habitat loss. Wild dogs are confined to just 7% of their historic range — this means they can’t track the changing climate,” Dr Rabaiotti said. “Habitat loss remains the biggest threat — but climate change could push them over the edge.”
African painted dogs are just one species that we know is facing extinction, but when global warming reaches 3°C, there will be thousands or tens of thousands more species — including people — that will be struggling to survive under the effects of climate change.
“We cannot afford to sit by and let countless species go extinct while we still have the chance to save them.”
Besides giving up our dependence on fossil fuel use, discontinuing eating meat, and refraining from buying excessive amounts of stuff, the most important thing we all can do to help painted dogs is to take strong steps to conserve their habitat by supporting conservation efforts and local community projects.
“Ongoing work is looking at the mechanism behind this using fine scale behavioural recordings combined with body temperature” Dr Rabaiotti said. “Hopefully, by identifying the mechanisms, it will highlight what steps can be made to prevent these population level impacts.”
“I would urge anyone working on climate impacts to look for similar mechanisms — where behaviour change in hot weather leads to lower energy intake of offspring, leading to lower survival to adulthood — in their study species.”
Daniella Rabaiotti, Tim Coulson, and Rosie Woodroffe (2023). Climate change is predicted to cause population collapse in a cooperative breeder, Global Change Biology | doi:10.1111/gcb.16890
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