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Can species keep up with climate change?

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David McNew/Getty Images

A southern Pacific rattlesnake tastes the air in Santa Ynez Canyon in Topanga State Park on May 21, 2008.

If the climate changes as fast as some think it might, some species could be in serious trouble.

A study out of Indiana University looked at how North American rattlesnakes have adapted to past climate changes and made projections about their future movement. The findings were published in the PLoS One, an online science journal.

If a species can't migrate to a new habitat or adapt to climate change, it will become extinct. By the end of the century, the temperature could increase anywhere from 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius, according to predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Over the past 300 millennia there have been three major glacial cycles, with large variation in climate and temperature. Rattlesnakes will have to move more than 100 times faster than they have in the past in order to make through the next 90 years.

Animals past responses to climate change are telling of what their future responses will be, according to the researchers. They used climate cycle models, geological data and data about the rattlesnake's evolution to map it's past migration in response to the changing temperature.

To cope with changing climate, rattlesnakes have only been able to shift their habitats, rather than biologically adapting. They've moved an average of about 2.3 meters a year over the past 320,000 years and their climate tolerance has evolved 100 to 1,000 times slower.

In order to keep up with projected climate changes, the animals will have to move 430 to 2,400 meters a year if they hope to find a suitable habitat where they can survive.

The rattlesnake may not be able to keep up. To save them, we might have to manage their relocation or create habitat corridors, researchers said.

Rattlesnakes are a good indicator for other species because they're ectotherms, which mean their body temperatures are regulated by the environment. The study is a model for what could happen to other species because many other organisms will be affected by climate change. 

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