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What can history tell us about species coping with climate change?

In work we published in Science today we look at two conflicting ideas on whether species can adapt to climate change. Are our ideas about extinction too catastrophic, or do we actually need to do more…

Climate change means some mountain species are just clinging on, but can they adapt? Australian Alps/Flickr

In work we published in Science today we look at two conflicting ideas on whether species can adapt to climate change. Are our ideas about extinction too catastrophic, or do we actually need to do more to protect biodiversity?

Picture a polar bear, perched precariously on a small iceberg somewhere in the diminishing Arctic icecap. This iconic image is often used to portray the fate species will suffer as human-driven climate change accelerates. Yes, the forecasts are dire. Using various modelling approaches, researchers predict major reductions in species distributions and increased rates of extinction, especially in the tropics and globally across mountains.

But the past tells a different story. There seems little evidence in the fossil record for elevated species extinction during periods of rapid warming, such as the transition from the last ice age into the current Holocene period. Rather, species such as north American trees and mammals shifted geographically, albeit idiosyncratically, or in some cases appear to have adapted without moving.

One obvious result is that, as individual species respond more or less to climate change, local communities change in composition. These results are borne out by comparative genetic studies. They show that the population size of many species fluctuated, but that fluctuation occurred differently across the same landscape.

So which of these two perspectives is closer to the truth? Either the record of past responses is somehow an unreliable guide to the future, or the dire predictions for the future overstate vulnerability. In our invited Science review, we highlight this problem and, as a bridge, consider evidence on species’ responses to the 20th century climate change.

For those species to persist, they have just two options – adapt or move. But theory tells us that only species with short generation times and high rates of potential population growth will be able to adapt, without moving, in the face of rapid climate change. Species may also be less vulnerable than coarse-scale models predict if they are able to adjust how they use local habitats (for example, by being active at different times or concentrating in cooler places).

The 20th century record reveals a middle ground. Yes, species ranges are shifting – often towards higher latitude and upwards. In some mountain species, this is resulting in severe loss of geographic range and measureable decline in genetic diversity. There are also documented changes in the timing of migration or reproduction and shifts in body size or leaf width, though whether these changes are heritable remains an open question. But, consistent with the fossil record, even closely related species vary in their response – some stay put, while others shift, resulting in changes in the make-up of local groups of species. But why do species vary so much in response? The simple answer is that we don’t yet know, making it all the more difficult to predict vulnerability species by species.

Returning to the disparity between (observed) past and (predicted) future response, it may be that the fossil record underestimates future species vulnerability because of limited resolution – often fossils can only be classified to genus rather than species. Or it may be because species in the distant past had more options to respond as they didn’t have to cope with human-altered ecological systems. In particular, reduction and fragmentation of natural habitats, compounded by introduced predators and herbivores, add additional, potentially fatal constraints to the ability of species to respond to future climate change.

Whatever the true magnitude of impact on species under future climate change, there is no room for complacency. Reducing emission increases as soon as possible will help conservation policy-makers and practitioners increase the resilience of natural systems. We need to take actions now to give species as many opportunities as possible to remain viable - even if not within their current geographic range.

Despite the above “known unknowns”, we do know enough to inform conservation policy. Reducing other ecological stressors - such as invasive species and inappropriate fire regimes – is the right thing to do. Managing already threatened species to maintain large population sizes and ecological breadth remains important. Identifying landscapes that can function as places of refuge from climate change and managing large landscapes to enable dispersal to these refuges is crucial. Inevitably this needs a multi-sectoral approach. National parks are the keystone, but will not be enough.

So how, in Australia are we doing? Community-driven efforts to rehabilitate habitats, such as through Landcare and catchment management plans, are laudatory and a vital element of our response. Ongoing expansion of areas managed explicitly for conservation, including Indigenous Protected Areas as part of the National Reserve System and increasing private investments through non-government organisations, is key. And connecting these efforts through regional, state and national corridor initiatives will increase resilience to ongoing climate change.

Yet recent moves to diminish the conservation value of our reserve system – allowing grazing or hunting in national parks - take us in exactly the wrong direction. We need to keep pressure on governments to take the long view if we are to sustain Australia’s amazing and unique evolutionary heritage.

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46 Comments sorted by

  1. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    I found this an interesting article. The relative climatic stability of the mid-late Holocene does not give us much to go on in anticipating individual species responses climate change, so studies of species that have or are experiencing relatively rapid change will give us insights that could help us reduce the likelihood of extinction - a very worthwhile field of study.
    The last paragraph however does appear to me to be extending beyond the 'evidence-based' journalism and entering the political lobbying arena.

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Murray ... I would say - in reference to your observation "entering the political lobbying arena" - that its more political education as an aside to political indoctrination ...

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    2. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Obviously the difference between political education and indoctrination depends entirely on an individuals political persuasion...
      Grazing can be used to positive ecological effect, so can logging, and biodiversity in our national parks are clearly in dire need of more active management.

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    3. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Murray Webster

      "biodiversity in our national parks are clearly in dire need of more active management"

      How on earth did the planet manage before humans began organising everything?

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    4. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      indeed Dianna, it is laughable to suggest nature needs 'active human management' ... just like kids in a lollies shop ...

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    5. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Well, very briefly, the theory goes.... Humans arrived in Australia 50 000 or so years ago. Mega fauna become extinct and previous ecosystems become dysfunctional. Humans adapt by managing the land with fire and become the dominant force in Australia's ecosystems. Fast forward 50 000 yrs, new humans arrive (this time from Europe), proclaim 'terra nullius', remove the first Australians' time-proven methods of land management. Combined with extensive clearing of particular vegetation communities…

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    6. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Briefly, much of the biodiversity to which you refer was and continues to decline because of human interference such as mining, logging and other activities.

      We are still learning how complex and interwoven the environment is, to such an extent that humans can repair our impact is naive. All we can really achieve is a mitigation of losses. Anything else is anthropomorphic arrogance.

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    7. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      I am quite happy to change my opinion in the face of scientific evidence, and have done in the past, have come from a belief system similar to what you are expressing. But I am not alone in my thinking on this topic:
      http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol10/iss1/art15/
      What ecologists call “stable, point of equilibrium ecological systems”, sort of like the mythical old-growth ecosystem in the movie Avatar, is described by some ecologists in this review paper as “just wrong”.
      I recently quoted on…

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    8. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Starting with your brief foray into aboriginal burn-off you have told me nothing I am not already aware of.

      Your examples are only inclusive of macro flora and fauna, with little consideration of the entire web of life which has as its foundation micro flora and fauna - it is what we humans don't see that we neglect. Impacts on water tables, deforestation resulting in land subsidence, pesticides and fertiliser run-off into rivers, estuaries and oceans and dare I mention the release of CO2 and methane into a system which has, until now, functioned compatibly with us and other life-forms, with far less of these "invisible" things (thanks Tony Abbott). The chain reaction of our attempts to manage the ecosystem to suit ourselves, is still occurring at exponential rates.

      As I previously stated the best we can do is mitigate the worst of our damage. I do not believe that humans will invent a magic wand any time soon, however you are free to believe that this is possible.

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    9. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna, Probably much of the problems in our nation Parks are as the result of human intervention of some sort. However, I am surprised that you did not appear to realise that all is certainly not well in any of them.

      I know this is a bit off topic of species coping with climate change, but to follow that theme, but not being a biologist, I do not myself, know of any species for which the latitudinal distribution is such that it does not already live in a range of climates much more diverse…

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  2. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Thank you for this article.

    I would like to suggest that the key difference between now and past rapid climate change events is briefly touched on in the middle of your article - fractured habitat.

    It's all well and good suggesting that species need to adapt or move, but if they are unable to move because of fractured habitat, then unless they can adapt they will probably go locally extinct. And given that human civilisation has fractured the habitat for so many species, and their numbers have reduced to such low numbers that they lack genetic diversity, then I would like to suggest that we are in for a major extinction event.

    That won't mean a loss of biomass - other species will take over. But it will mean a loss of many species and of much biodiversity.

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    1. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I second Mike's note of thanks.

      Wouldn't another key difference between current and previous climatic changes ("such as the transition from the last ice age into the current Holocene period") be the rate of change? When coming out of the last glaciation, roughly speaking, the earth warmed by ~4ºC over a period of ~10,000 years. On our current trajectory, we are likely to see ~4ºC change in ~100 years, so we're looking at changes that are two orders of magnitude faster.

      I would love to hear the authors comment on this, as I didn't see it mentioned in the article.

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Here is a summary of a paper also published in Science today that makes essentially that point.

      "“The key difference is the rate of change,” said co-author Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, in an interview. “The combination of rate and magnitude over the next century is unprecedented. In the context of the geological record of the last 65 million years, this (change in the 21st century) is likely to be an order of magnitude, or two or three orders, more rapid.”"

      http://www.climatecentral.org/news/ecosystems-face-unprecedented-changes-in-the-next-century-16301

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    3. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Also wondering why rate of climate change not addressed in this article. The significant difference between current change and previous events is the rate. Changes happening over decades instead of millenia, do not give many species time to move or adapt.

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  3. John Perry

    Teacher

    The idea of extinction on a mass scale gives me the willies. Why do we never hypothesise about how it would be if, say, wheat or some other vital grain were to become extinct? That's all, folks - it ain't coming back! Billions of years of work snuffed out in an instant.

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    1. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to John Perry

      John Perry,

      Yes, that would indeed give any one the willies which is why the Climate Commission keeps feeding us suggestions that this is what will happen if we are not good children and cut out smoking - coal!

      The upside is though that Global temperature is not increasing, the Sea Surface Temperature is not increasing, the sea to depths of 2,000 m is not warming, sea levels are not rising as fast as they were earlier in the last century: See the outputs from the major climate institutes at CRU, NASA, NOAH, UAH.... at http://www.jonnic.net/fifteenyeartemps and at http://www.jonnic.net/climdec - and relax!!
      John Nicol

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    2. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to John Perry

      John Perry,

      Yes, that would indeed give any one the willies which is why the Climate Commission keeps feeding us suggestions that this is what will happen if we are not good children and cut out smoking - coal!

      The upside is though that Global temperature is not increasing, the Sea Surface Temperature is not increasing, the sea to depths of 2,000 m is not warming, sea levels are not rising as fast as they were earlier in the last century: See the outputs from the major climate institutes at CRU, NASA, NOAH, UAH.... at http://www.jonnic.net/ http://www.jonnic.net/climdec - and relax!!
      John Nicol

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  4. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Mark McGuire

      climate consensus rebel

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      And the relevance of that to the current article is ?

      Quotes: "In work we published in Science today we look at two conflicting ideas on whether species can adapt to climate change.
      But the past tells a different story."

      Re-Quote Gore-trained Climate LeaderJan Moore: "Using the past ...

      But, re-reading the article, let's look at this quote:

      "Picture a polar bear, perched precariously on a small iceberg somewhere in the diminishing Arctic icecap.
      This iconic image is often used to portray the fate species will suffer as human-driven climate change accelerates.
      Yes, the forecasts are dire."

      Here is some alternative data:

      Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001
      http://polarbearscience.com/2013/07/15/global-population-of-polar-bears-has-increased-by-2650-5700-since-2001/

      Diminishing Arctic icecap?
      Arctic Ice level, August 1 2013 -
      http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/plots/icecover/icecover_current.png

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  5. Edwina Laginestra
    Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Jack of all trades

    I was hoping for more from this article and, as a couple of others noted, there seems to be little consideration regarding time and space differences from the past - there is less available habitat as humans expand their range (unless the poor species adapt into our neighbourhoods like possums living in roofs) and the time change for adaptation in the past to what we are pushing these days is very different.
    Also I just thought i'd mention to Mark McGuire that is a rubbish website regarding getting good info.

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    1. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to Edwina Laginestra

      I was hoping more from this article too.
      These articles are so repetitious. Warming...threatened species...la la la.
      What about the differences between any other time and now with regard to pollution?
      The assumption that "Climate Change" should be discussed in isolation from everything else in the modern world except "Burning Fossil Fuels" is a bit isolationist don't you think?

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  6. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

    Boss

    In the last 20 years in Australia, what climate changes are strong enough and documented well enough to cause any species to adapt? (Thinking of those with life cycles of a couple of years).

    Ditto for last 150 years of recorded history.

    Ditto for reconstructions of last 1,000 years.

    Is there ANY evidence for any species being affected by climate change? Not seeking answers that start 'present projections indicate........' and the like.

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Yeah that's right Geoffrey. We shouldn't even begin to think about it until after it has happened.

      But can I ask you a question? If I show you a species that has been unequivocally affected by climate change - even though the degree of climate change to date has been small compared to what is predicted - will you finally accept the evidence and change your views on the issue?

      That should be easy for you to answer in the affirmative. After all, as a 'sceptic', you should be able to change your stance based on the evidence, shouldn't you?

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    2. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Geoffrey, we've got a piece on Monday that looks at how some specific species have already been affected.

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    3. Henry Franceschi

      Director, NCD Treatment Centers

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike,

      Time to wake up and smell the coffee. We're far beyond the need for more "views." Hot air is destroying the planet, and more "views" that can't be turned to action at the level and breadth and depth that's needed are simply just so much more hot air. What's needed is action at a level unheard of in human history. In-country revolutions are trivial in today's scenario. Survivalists suggest we run away from society; radicals preach global and violent "extinction" of the governments that allowed this, and the corporations doing it. Besides "views," Mike, seriously what action do you suggest that is at a level unheard of in human history and not only stops this in its tracks, but reverses it?

      Dr. A-F

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    4. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Henry Franceschi

      You are correct Henry, we do need drastic action, and we need it now.

      Its time people woke up to the very simple fact that no matter what we do, we are going to be in for a world of hurt and it is going to cost trillions of dollars. If we do nothing, we will eventually so modify the ecosystem that the costs will be catastrophic - so we have to do something. And the level of 'something' is so huge that it will also cost trillions. The first thing we need to do is accept that.

      So what then…

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  7. Henry Franceschi

    Director, NCD Treatment Centers

    Moritz and Agudo ask (1) can species adapt to climate change and (2) do we need to do more to protect biodiversity?

    In a course I took on Propaganda Analysis, Rule 1, when given only 2 “questions” to pick from, was to prepare yourself to analyze propaganda, which seemed called here for in light of what I see as entry-level bias.

    1. First, the authors ask about “adaptation” to climate change not “extinction.” Also, the logical counterpart to “extinction” is not “protection of biodiversity…

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    1. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to Henry Franceschi

      Propaganda? Absolutely. What is its purpose?
      To turn our faces away from the things we CAN change?

      To so frighten us with stories of threatened extinction in the presence of humans, that we are sure that humans are to blame.
      Our guilt is easily turned on us, so that we campaign to set aside large areas of sea or land without humans. It will help the planet.

      Then there is the change of language.
      "Preserving Biodiversity" means poisoning weeds, bating feral animals, and spraying locusts.
      "Sustainable Farming" and "No Till" mean spraying weedicide
      on land before crops are planted.
      "Taking care of the country" means killing every "non-native"
      life form you can find.
      All these things involve the use of more poisons than we have
      ever used before. Poisons are never discussed.

      What could be the purpose of the propaganda?

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Henry Franceschi

      Gee Henry, such a long post with so much wrong.

      Firstly, you are wrong that "we humans cannot operate at the scale and the time frames needed to create a non-trivial impact on (the rate of climate change)". We are doing that right now. Its a fact you need to accept, otherwise all of your other analysis is for nothing because it is based on a false starting position.

      Secondly, as any ecosystem expert will tell you, the survival and / or health of any species population - including we humans…

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    3. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Henry Franceschi

      Henry, journalistic simplification is responsible for the 'was it a or b?' questions you're looking at. That's not what the scientists actually analysed - please do read the full paper to find out more on that - it's just how we tried to summarise it for a general audience.

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  8. John Nicol

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Craig and Rosa,

    As biologists, with probably little background in atmospheric physics and the science of the spectroscopy of molecules such as CO2 and radiation, I respect the fact that all of your expectations of "Climate Change" are based on the dire reports continuously promulgated by our Climate Commisssion, who seem to have missed reading the apologies from the IPCC regarding the over spiced suggestions of Global Warming made in earlier reports.

    It seems that IPCC Report AR5 2013/2014…

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  9. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "There seems little evidence in the fossil record for elevated species extinction during periods of rapid warming." It is the speed of change which is the problem. Previous 'rapid' events took a long time in human terms, but the change we are now causing is happening before our eyes. It is inconceivable that many species will have time to evolve and adaptation will be moderated by the availability of suitable habitat.

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    1. Henry Franceschi

      Director, NCD Treatment Centers

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Doug,

      I agree that it’s the speed of the change that’s the problem. And we’re not just doing it to other species but to ourselves.

      Compared to 30 yrs ago when they started to increase, chronic diseases – heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer and traumatic injuries – today account for 40 million deaths a yr worldwide by diseases that, in 90-95% of cases, are preventable, such that when one alters lifestyle, attitudes and food habits metabolic biomarkers decrease significantly and at twice…

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  10. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    The best way to reduce the pressure on our precious natural habitat would be to limit Australia's population growth by reducing immigration.

    It is obvious that if our population doubles in the next decades, it will undoubtedly place more burden on the biosphere of our nation.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      It is not population which is destroying our environment.
      Overpopulation is one predictor of extinction, but not the cause.

      Neither hot air nor overpopulation is killing this planet.
      Man made poisons are killing all the ecosystems which keep the system alive.

      Our most used herbicide breaks the Shikimate Pathway. This Pathway is the basis of the Earth we know. So it is not the Planet which is being destroyed , it is every living thing we know and need to supply air and shelter and food.
      All these things are provided via the Shikimate Pathway. Our most used herbicide, Glyphosate is preferred because of it's supposed lack of toxicity. That is a very blinkered point of view. If looked at from the point of view of the ecosystem upon which we depend, it is far far worse than DDT.
      It is easily the most toxic substance for sale in our shops, not to us
      directly, but to everything we need to survive and thrive.

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Murray, maybe I'm just argumentative, but spiders don't 'run' as quick as a human; could they have intuitively sought higher ground? debatable ... but spiders (who spin webs) predominantly 'parachute' in to areas ...

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    2. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Hi Daniel, Actually 'adapt' is probably the wrong word, the ability to shift nesting sites from ground to tree must have already been in their evolutionary behaviour repertoire. I.e they were already adapted but we did not know. I found this surprising, and anticipate many more surprising behaviours as the effects of climate change play out.
      Yes my understanding is that web-spinning spiders do parachute into areas, and may well have been amongst the first species to reach the stratosphere and beyond...

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    3. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Murray and Daniel,
      'Respond' is probably a more accurate term than'Adapt'.
      I saw somewhere on the net, photographs of a spider's web before and after the spider had been fed a number of substances. The differences were significant.

      Chemical change is made more obvious by rising temperature. This was pointed out in early studies on Crown of Thorns starfish, done in Cairns.
      But the role of changed chemistry is paramount.
      Those whose wealth depends upon a universal careless acceptance of the role of chemicals in Earth's deteriorating environment will continue to insist that nothing can be done.
      Almost everyone is sucked in to their campaign.

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