Flexibility in Behavior of Some Animals Helps Them Accommodate a Changing Climate

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A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey and its partners has identified situations and conditions where some animals display behavioral flexibility – the ability to rapidly change behavior in response to short – or long-term environmental changes such as climate variability. 

Image: Calling Pika
Photo of pika vocalizing. (Credit: Erik Beever, USGS. Public domain.)

The three primary types of successful response to new environmental conditions involve species moving, adapting or acclimating to the changing conditions.

Scientists have been studying animal behavior in response to various environmental changes for multiple centuries, but this study is the first attempt to systematically and comprehensively identify the circumstances in which animal species have been found to exhibit behavioral flexibility in response to changing climatic conditions.

“Given that species must cope with variability in environmental conditions over multiple time scales, behavioral flexibility can allow some animals a means by which to rapidly and effectively cope with such variability, yet without committing to more-permanent characteristics that won’t always be beneficial,” said the study’s lead author, USGS researcher Erik Beever.

Scientists performed a worldwide literature search and found 186 studies that identify situations where animals displayed behavior flexibility as a way of coping with climate variability. The most common behavioral response exhibited by species involved changing the timing of life events such as laying eggs, giving birth, mating or starting migration. Such behavioral flexibility was found most frequently among studies of invertebrates, followed by birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes.

Sixty-seven percent of the studies point to aspects of temperature as the most-likely driving force of behavioral changes. In contrast, factors such as precipitation, changes in food sources or habitat, relative humidity, and wind were less frequently associated with the behavioral changes.

The study highlighted the American pika as an example of a species that copes with climatic variability by occasionally using many of these flexible behaviors. Pikas are typically limited to high-elevation, cool and moist rocky habitats in the mountains of western North America. However, in areas that have complex habitat, they employ a suite of behaviors to avoid and accommodate climatic stress, including changes in foraging strategy, habitat use and heat-regulating postures. Although pikas have experienced climate-related declines in some parts of their range, behavioral flexibility may allow other populations of pikas to make use of alternative habitats in seemingly unsuitable landscapes.

Because animals must also engage in other activities essential for survival and reproduction, behavioral responses to environmental changes may be limited by such trade-offs and thus may allow species to accommodate more-extreme conditions only up to a certain point. Consequently, there remain unknowns regarding, for example, how species will respond to ongoing and increased climatic variability and higher frequency of extreme-weather events.

The study also illustrates how managers can incorporate an improved understanding of behavioral flexibility into natural-resource management and policy decisions.

“Although further work can refine particular applications and implementation, our study provided a number of examples of how wildlife and natural-resource managers can capitalize on better understanding of behavioral flexibility to more strategically manage animal species,” said Beever.

The article, published online this week in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, is titled “Behavior as a mechanism for coping with climate change,” and can be viewed at the following website.

This project was funded in part by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center.

More information about species response to a global change can be found on the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center website.