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The changing climate is impacting the brains and behavior of animals – a neuroscientist provides insights into the phenomenon

Human-induced climate change is increasingly molding the habitats of Earth. Elevated temperatures, swift alterations in precipitation patterns and seasonal variations, and ocean acidification are creating modified environments for numerous animal species. How do these creatures adapt to these new, frequently extreme circumstances?

The nervous systems of animals play a crucial role in both enabling and constraining their responses to changing climates. As a biologist and neuroscientist, my primary research interests involve understanding how animals acclimate to temperature extremes and identifying the factors that influence the structure and function of animal nervous systems, particularly their brains. The convergence of these interests has led me to delve into the impact of climate on nervous systems and predict how animals are likely to react to swiftly changing environments.

The nervous system’s major functions – sensory detection, mental processing, and behavior direction – are vital, allowing animals to navigate their surroundings in ways that ensure their survival and reproduction. Climate change is poised to influence these functions, often in detrimental ways.

Alterations in Sensory Environments Fluctuating temperatures disrupt the energy balance of ecosystems, affecting everything from plants that generate energy through sunlight to animals that consume plants and other creatures. Consequently, this alters the sensory landscapes experienced by animals. Climate change is expected to pose challenges to all their senses, encompassing sight, taste, smell, and touch.

Creatures like mammals detect temperature through specialized receptor proteins in their nervous systems, responding to both heat and cold while distinguishing between moderate and extreme temperatures. These receptors aid animals in locating suitable habitats and could be pivotal in shaping their responses to temperature fluctuations.

The disruptions caused by climate change extend to the environmental cues animals utilize to address challenges such as habitat selection, foraging for food, and choosing mates. Certain animals, like mosquitoes serving as vectors for parasites and pathogens, depend on temperature gradients to navigate their surroundings. The shifts in temperature are modifying the locations and timing of mosquito host-seeking activities, consequently impacting disease transmission dynamics.

The impact of climate change on the chemical signals used by animals for communication or competitive interactions can be intricate due to the high sensitivity of chemical compounds to temperature variations. Reliable sources of information, such as seasonal changes in daylight, may lose their efficacy as they become uncoupled, potentially leading to disruptions in the link between day length and natural events like plant flowering, fruiting, hibernation, and migration.

As temperatures rise, there is the potential for disruption in the development and functioning of animal brains, which could adversely affect their capacity to adapt effectively to new environments. Researchers have observed how extreme temperatures can modify individual neurons at genetic and structural levels, as well as the overall organization of the brain.

In marine ecosystems, climate-induced alterations in water chemistry, such as ocean acidification, have been shown to impact animals’ cognitive performance and sensory abilities, including odor tracking in reef fish and sharks.

Adverse climate conditions may prompt animals to relocate, changing the microhabitats they inhabit or adjusting their geographic ranges. Additionally, there may be shifts in activity patterns, either in terms of different times of the day or new seasons, with these behavioral adaptations having significant implications for the environmental stimuli animals encounter.

For instance, in warming seas, fish have altered their locations to cooler, deeper waters characterized by significantly different light intensity and color ranges than their accustomed visual systems. Moreover, as not all species will exhibit uniform shifts in behavior, those that do relocate to new habitats, times of day, or seasons will encounter novel challenges, including different food sources, prey animals, competitors, predators, and pathogens.

Climate-induced behavioral changes will lead to a global restructuring of ecosystems, resulting in intricate and unpredictable consequences.

Plasticity and Evolution Animal brains exhibit remarkable flexibility, adapting to individual environmental experiences, even undergoing substantial changes in adulthood. However, comparative studies among species reveal robust environmental influences on brain evolution. Nervous systems of animals evolve in accordance with the sensory environments within their activity space, suggesting that new climate patterns will eventually shape nervous systems through evolutionary processes.

In cases where genetics exert a strong influence on brain development, nervous systems finely tuned to the local environment may lose their adaptive advantages with climate change, opening avenues for new adaptive solutions. As sensory stimuli and seasonal cues undergo shifts in range and significance, natural selection will favor individuals with novel sensory or cognitive abilities.

While certain parts of the nervous system are constrained by genetic adaptations, others exhibit greater plasticity and responsiveness to environmental conditions. A deeper understanding of how animal nervous systems adapt to swiftly changing environments will aid in predicting the impact of climate change on all species.

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