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Mixed tropical forest in Central Mexico

Climate change could rearrange natural communities in Mexico and lead to “severe ecological perturbations”, according to new research.

A study published in the 11 April issue of Nature shows that the wild inhabitants of many areas may be radically different in 50 years time. The results also reveal the likely complexity of the effects of global warming, suggesting that the assumption that everything will move either north or uphill is simplistic.

A. Townsend Peterson of the University of Kansas and colleagues used specimens in museums around the world to plot the geographical ranges of 1,870 Mexican species of mammal, bird and butterfly. The researchers then combined this with information on the environment of each location, matching each species to its preferred climate.

Next, powerful computer simulations calculated how the climate of each location would change over the next half-century, and so where each species would be able to survive. The researchers used two climate-change scenarios, and varied their assumptions about the dispersal powers of animals.

Relatively few species will go extinct altogether, they predict. But most will find themselves with smaller ranges in 2055 than now. And the greatest effects of climate change may come from this reshuffling of ecosystems, bringing new hosts and parasites, and predators and prey together.

Reference: Nature 416, 626 (2002)

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Photo credit: G. Keith Douce, The University of Georgia, Image 1673020. April 11 2002