A change of climate

Analyzing the local environment of about 26,000 animal species identifies new ways to classify the world’s climate regions.
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Geographical location of the different climate regions inhabited by vertebrates. Image credit: Calatayud et al. (CC BY 4.0)

There are many distinct climates on Earth, from tropical savannas and temperate forests to dry deserts. Historically, each region has been defined by how its annual weather patterns shape the type of vegetation present. For example, hot and humid environments support the growth of evergreen forests that would not survive in drier places.

Identifying the boundaries between climate regions is key to understanding how life is organized on Earth and predicting how climate change will affect different species. Current climate classifications, however, do not account for where animals can be found or how local conditions, such as precipitation and average temperatures, shape the distribution of different animal species. To bridge this gap, Calatayud et al. analyzed the preferred climate of about 26,000 animal species, including amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles.

For each species, Calatayud et al. calculated the annual rainfall and temperature of its local environment, or ‘niche’, using previously collected data. They then used a computer algorithm to group together climates that had similar species. This identified 16 climate regions which govern the distribution of the animals studied. Calatayud et al. found that these newly defined climatic regions resembled some of the regions classified using plants. This was particularly true for high-energy climates that had lower levels of rainfall and hot temperatures, such as deserts and the tropical savanna.

The animals and plant species living in high-energy regions were found to be fairly consistent across both classification systems. Whereas the species present in milder and colder climates, such as temperate forests or Mediterranean climates, were found to be much more varied. This suggests that temperate climates are harder to classify and may affect the distribution of plants and animals differently. It also implies that less extreme conditions support a larger range of species than harsher climates in which only species with certain adaptations are able to survive.

These findings build the basis for a better understanding of how climates shape ecosystems. More specific climate classifications, based on such analyses, could be used to inform conservation strategies for animal species in the face of climate change.