Study Shows Animals Starting to Move to Higher Latitudes, Elevations


A new study out of the University of York shows that animals are moving to higher latitudes and elevations as a result of global warming. The research, which is a meta-analysis of previous individual studies, finds that about 1,300 species are shifting habitat faster than had previously been assumed. But they’re not all moving toward cooler temperatures. The data are mostly skewed toward Europe and North America. Here’s the abstract:

The distributions of many terrestrial organisms are currently shifting in latitude or elevation in response to changing climate. Using a meta-analysis, we estimated that the distributions of species have recently shifted to higher elevations at a median rate of 11.0 meters per decade, and to higher latitudes at a median rate of 16.9 kilometers per decade. These rates are approximately two and three times faster than previously reported. The distances moved by species are greatest in studies showing the highest levels of warming, with average latitudinal shifts being generally sufficient to track temperature changes. However, individual species vary greatly in their rates of change, suggesting that the range shift of each species depends on multiple internal species traits and external drivers of change. Rapid average shifts derive from a wide diversity of responses by individual species.

From the Arbor Day Foundation, here’s an animation that demonstrates the shifting plant growth, or “hardiness zones,” in North America from 1990 to 2006. 

About 20% of species moved in a direction opposite from what might have been predicted. It appears that they prefer warmer situations, which is another arrow in the “we’re bad at predicting things” quiver. We expected one outcome, but mother nature showed us another.


Does elevation factor into any "influence" in the changes from 1990 to 2006?
Are we to presume that before 2006 "arbor day" did not have their own hardiness chart, hence the comparison of FDA chart to arbor day chart?

How does one explain "mother nature"'s response with some species going the opposite direction?


How do we know this has to do with climate change? How about more people moving to lower latitudes and pushing animals out of their habitats towards higher latitudes?

Jason Collins

If you conducted an economic experiment and 80% did as expected, would you then argue that you are bad at predicting? Or would you use statistical analysis to determine whether the trend was significant? In fact, could you show me any experiments in economics where some of the individual participants did not do the opposite to the overall statistical trend? Putting it another way, was the prediction that all 1,300 species would head to higher latitudes, or was it that this is what they would do on average?

Andrea Taylor

I can think off the top of my head of three possibilities for the species going "the wrong way":
1. They're being driven out by migrants moving in on their territory.
2. They have no easy migration path to territory they would prefer.
3. They actually did prefer warmer territory, they were just being outcompeted by other species that have either moved out of that territory or are under environmental stress from warming. For example, when DDT wiped out the boll weevil from so many cotton fields, other species that had been outcompeted in cotton by the boll weevil moved in and not all of them were amenable to control by DDT.

A Conservative Teacher

Back in the 1970's when 'human action is causing global cooling' was all the rage, studies showed animals and plants moving in the other direction. It's almost as if people don't control the entire globe with their own actions and need to learn a little bit of humility.


Global Cooling all the rage was it? This from Wikipedia:

"This hypothesis had mixed support in the scientific community, but gained temporary popular attention due to a combination of a slight downward trend of temperatures from the 1940s to the early 1970s and press reports that did not accurately reflect the scientific understanding of ice age cycles."

The difference between then and now are significant. Now Global Warming has overwhelming scientific support backed up by overwhelming evidence.

Yes, there is also overwhelming amounts of denial in play, but the credibility of the deniers is so thin as to be laughable. Can't you see who is funding the "no" case here?

To claim that there is any analogy between a fringe theory like the one you quote, and the strong international scientific consensus we have today shows just how horribly flawed the education system in America really is. That you are a teacher is frightening.



Life adapts. Imagine that.


"Global warming" ? Come on, even the alarmists abandoned that. It is "climate change" now. That is how you get grants, get published, and get tenure.

How about every professor bleating about "global warming" agree to an income freeze for that subject? Let's see how fast *that* industry goes the way of zero population and no nukes.

Humans need something to be afraid of. It used to be demons, now it is the science disaster du jour. Thirty years ago Time Magazine did a cover story about the horrible dangers of cooling. Excellent cherry picked statistics.

Last year, relatively unnoticed, the main database for historic weather patterns was found to be fraudulent. Careers were...not ruined.

Is it good to work to eliminate pollution? Sure. But breeding flatulent-free livestock would far outweigh all the man-made emissions caps.

Ten thousand years ago, a mere blink in time, Chiacago was covered by a mile of ice. Climate change? Yes, of course. It is the only constant in our planet's history.


Anders Munch

Global warming is what's causing climate change. It's not one or the other, it's cause and effect.

That's what scientists have been saying for three decades now. But you have been listening to "alarmists", not scientists, it would seem.

Until recently, the focus was on discussing the evidence for global warming. Now it has shifted to discussing the consequences of global warming. The public agenda has changed, but the science is the same.

I wonder, how do you expect that flatulence-reduced (f.-free is biologically impossible) livestock to succeed in the marketplace, if not through economic incentives or regulation?


My work is brokering nursery stock in Memphis, TN, and I will attest that we have been having what I call "zone 8 plant creep" for the past few years or so. By that I mean that people are starting to plant zone 8 plants in our area. A lot of old-time landscapers will tell me that you can't plant those certain ones here, they'll freeze. I keep waiting for them to be hammered one winter, but for the 10 years I have been doing this, it has yet to happen.

The last really cold winter here was December 2000-January 2001. That year there was a lot of cold damage including well-established zone 7 plants that never have any winter problems.

Truthfully though, I prefer the warmer winters, I like the increased variety of plants and love it when my lantana and elephant ears come back from the roots. Heck, I'm tempted to plant some sago palms and variegated pittosporum.


Humans are also moving to higher latitudes, not because of global warming, but economic reasons


20% going a different way means we're bad at predictions? I'll take being right 80% of the time any day.

The changes to the zone map are a little scarier. I wonder if Monsanto is quietly buying up central Canadian grasslands on the cheap.


Another possibility for the species going “the wrong way”:
availability of water


This study is no surprise for me. Having been an avid duck hunter in the Memphis area (usually in the MS delta) for some 20 years now, I have witnessed a definitive change in the winter migration patterns of waterfowl, namely ducks and geese, over the last 10 years. Each year, it is quite apparent that the number of ducks that make it down to MS and AR in the winter is decreasing.

Even a slight increase in temperature can have drastic effects--there is a big difference between 32.1 degrees and 32.0 degrees Fahrenheit. Ducks can't eat frozen soybeans or rice, so they migrate south when the bean fields and rice fields freeze. With global warming, the longer it takes to reach temperatures below the freezing point, and the greater the likelihood that temperatures fail to stay below freezing point for a sustained period of time. As a result, more and more ducks will remain in MO, IL and IA instead of migrating south to MS, AR, TN. And the ones that do migrate south will do so later in the winter and for a shorter duration.

There are a number of studies out there from state agriculture and wildlife groups, as well as from organizations like Ducks Unlimited, a huge conservationist non-profit (aka lobbyist powerhouse). Such issues are, not surprisingly, quite complex, and there are other factors at play. As we all know, the farming industry is a huge benefactor of government subsidies, which of course has a myriad of unintended consequences. The entire state of Arkansas is basically one big rice field. Ducks love them some rice, and they especially love the miles upon miles of AR rice farms, which are precision leveled, surrounded by well-built levees, and flush with state of the art irrigation systems, often equipped with well pumps that will flood the fields when rain is not doing the trick. The fields are always flooded, and the only thing ducks love more than rice is water. There have been a number of recent advances in farming technology in the last 10-20 years. Combine harvesters these days leave very little rice behind after the harvest, meaning less food for the ducks, so it is likely ducks have learned that it may be better to stay up north and eat corn in Iowa than to head south in search of rice in AR.

And then of course another factor is the hunters themselves. Duck hunting is a lot more popular in the South, and its popularity increased significantly in the 90s.


J.A. Graham

Readers may want to dig deeper than the abstract of this paper. Here is an interesting evaluation of the the paper and lead researcher.....


In early 2004 Nature, a respected science journal, ran a cover story titled Feeling the Heat: biodiversity losses due to global warming. As one critic would later observe:

It is rare for a scientific paper to be the lead item on the evening news, or to fill the front pages of our national newspapers, but [that particular study] received exceptional worldwide media attention.
The lead author was named Chris D. Thomas. Now he’s back in the news – this time for a paper published in Science whose very own press release begins:

Many different species of plants and animals have been moving higher in elevation and farther away from the equator to escape the Earth’s warming climate.

Once more, the media is all over the story – and the headlines are nothing if not dramatic. The BBC declares that species are fleeing a warm climate faster than previously thought. Time magazine tells us that climate change is turning plants and animals into refugees. CNN asserts that animals are being driven to higher ground by warmth. (Lots more news stories may be seen here.)

What no one seems to realize or remember is that things turned out rather badly the last time Thomas’ work was similarly fêted by journalists. (Although Thomas’ name isn’t listed first on the Science article, both the BBC and CNN say he led the project.)

I’m familiar with the 2004 Thomas paper because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chose to base its 2007 species extinction predictions on this work despite the fact that it had already been thoroughly trashed by other experts.

Nature published three separate critiques of the 2004 Thomas paper six months afterward. These were followed by challenges in other publications – including a 6,000-word evisceration by a conservation biologist at Oxford University. (See my blog post here.)

Daniel Botkin, who is described as “one of the preeminent ecologists of the 20th century” similarly lambasted the 2004 Thomas paper – both in the peer-reviewed literature as well as on his own blog. He’s called that study “the worst paper I have ever read in a major scientific journal.”
He explains (see the comment dated March 9, 2008):

First, the paper uses a theory that is inappropriate and illogical for the question. Second, the data on which the calculations are based — the areas of the world’s biomes — are crude, lacking estimates of measurement error. My textbook Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet has a chapter on the scientific method in which I state that “a measurement without a statement about its degree of uncertainty is meaningless.”

In other words, Thomas’ track record is, shall we say, problematic. It would seem that many of his peers hold his work in less-than-high regard. Six months from now it may be Science‘s turn to publish three critiques of this new paper.



I love the phrase "to escape the Earth’s warming climate"... sounds like ducks are building space ships and leaving for good.


Horse Hockey. Get a life.


I suppose. My wine growing friends on the Mosel River used to get a Spaetlese, the best quality wine, every three or four years. Now it's every year and to the point where Spaetlese is cheap and the "lower quality" Kabinett is expensive. They tell me the growing season is a month longer. But before we go off on climate scientists, let's talk about the record of economists concerning prediction.... And how about the simpler explanation: Animals can move, plants can't.


First, let me say that I accept the general conclusion that scientists have reached that man-caused warming through carbon dioxide emissions exists and is a real phenomenon.

But, in my view, the area where economists (especially contrarians that like Freakonomics) should be asking "Is global warming a bad thing overall?"

If you look at any news report and many of the narrow studies of specific species that are published, you would guess the answer must be "yes". However, my hypothesis based on millions of years of researched and documented plant and animal history is that global warming is generally a good thing, at least up until some point, and it is more global cooling that has been the bane of plant and animal life on this planet.

Now, I almost never hear this viewpoint brought up and it would probably be rejected summarily by the 'mainstream'. But, looking at what our planet's biological history shows us, I just cannot reach any other conclusion.