BU's Professor Perspectives Panel Builds Understanding of Climate Change Through Plants and Animals

On Monday, February 25, the Pre Veterinary and Animal Lovers Society at Boston University hosted a Professor Perspectives talk on animal behavior and climate change. The discussion focused on what one can learn from plants, primates, and other species about climate change.

The panel consisted of Dr. Richard Primack, a biology professor, and Postdoctoral Associate Dr. Stephanie Poindexter. Primack mostly focused on the ways one is able to witness climate change through the study of plants, while Poindexter centered around how primates can illustrate it. The panel also touched on how New England experiences climate change uniquely.

According to the panel, there is one main thing tying together plants, animals, and climate change: carbon dioxide. While the heat-trapping gas, CO2 is one of the main causes of global warming, CO2 is essential for plants and is something released by animals. CO2 is a natural part of our earth systems, but its role in climate change is affecting those very plants and animals in a negative way.

To start with plants, Massachusetts is unique in that it is home to a little town outside of Boston called Concord, which has the most natural history records out of any place in North America.

"If you go up to Concord, Massachusetts it looks like this colonial town frozen in time,” said Primack. “But it is, in fact, experiencing the effects of climate change."

Primack discussed how these natural history records have helped illustrate the effect of climate change in Concord. When analyzing the records, Primack looks for a change in plant behavior over time and analyzes it to discover patterns that connect to climate change. By looking at works like Henry David Thoreau's from 1857 he was able to recognize that plants flower sooner in warm years and later in cold years. Due to climate change, Concord has lost 27% of its natural plant species, especially the ones that prefer warm weather, with them going locally extinct.

He also looked at bird and insect behavior to see any other ways climate change might be affecting the ecosystem of Concord. He found that similar to plants, insects are responsive to temperature, coming out earlier in the warm temperatures and later in the cold ones. However, he analyzed that birds haven’t changed their migration patterns based on warmer and colder years, which means that when they get back to the Northeast they are out of sync with the rest of nature and potentially without a food source.

This temperature responsiveness is characteristic past plants, insects, and birds. While the research isn’t as extensive, Poindexter, with her primate necklace on display, discussed how climate change has affected primates as well.

There are over 500 species of primates, but one thing they all have in common is population decline, said Poindexter. While there has been little empirical research, what scientists do know about climate change’s effect on primates is based on what they already know about primate seasonality. The closer primates’ ties are to seasonality, the stricter their breeding season, which means this is affected by climate change

Poindexter's focus in her research is mainly on the Javan Slow Loris from Indonesia. She has spent time in the field studying and tracking the Slow Loris and learning about their patterns and behavior. Unlike other animals that are able to move with the climate to more suitable places, Slow Lorises are unable to jump between trees so they are more stuck in their changing habitats and thus more heavily affected by climate change than some other species may be.

The Slow Loris has adapted in some ways to climate change such as by moving into higher altitudes and by sleeping in bamboo patches instead of open branches to buffer the change in temperatures. Poindexter emphasized that primates, as seen in the Slow Lorises, can be flexible but there is always a limit.

"Primates are flexible, they already display seasonality and I don’t think it’s gonna be a case of one day the temperature increases by one degree and they all fall out of the tree. They are going to have to evolve in the face of different climate variables,” said Poindexter. “But  like any sort of rubber band, there is going to be a breaking point, so it isn’t something to take lightly.”

Climate change is especially easy to observe in New England since New England has the most variable weather of any temperature zone in the world, said Primack. The different factors creating our variable climate makes us uniquely and heavily impacted by climate change, especially when it comes to plant and animal life. To give a measurement of how severely affected the region is, Primack mentioned that if a hurricane were to hit Boston in 30 to 40 years, the entire city would be underwater.

Taking from Thoreau's novel Walden, Primack emphasized a need for us to observe nature, live simply, and try to actually affect society.

"We shouldn’t just do these things ourselves and among our friends,” said Primack. “But really, in order to deal with the problem of climate change, we need to act collectively."

According to the panel, climate change is not something that can be learned about and then put aside, it requires first our attention and then action towards change.

 

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