Swiss researchers have analysed the impact of climate change on desert-dwelling meerkats in Africa.
Resilient and resourceful, Kalahari meerkats have long thrived in harsh desert environments. But an increase in extreme climatic events is putting that endurance to the test and may threaten their existence.
Climate change is making one of their main habitats, the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, warmer and drier, according to climate models.
Researchers from the Universities of Zurich and Cambridge have investigated how these changes will affect the meerkat population there.
Rising summer temperatures and fluctuations in precipitation levels influence the body mass and growth of the animals and can lead to lower reproduction rates and lower chances of survival, according to researcher Maria Paniw and her colleagues.
The findings first appeared in the Feb. 8, 2019 issue of Science under the title "Life history responses of meerkats to seasonal changes in extreme environments."
The study is based on detailed data collected monthly between 1997 and 2016 as part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, University of Zurich reported on Wednesday.
Paniw and her colleagues linked changes in growth, survival and reproduction of the meerkats with records of seasonal precipitation and temperatures. On this basis, they developed a model to look 50 years into the future - using various climate change scenarios.
In particular, hotter and drier summers could endanger the survival of meerkats as under these conditions, fewer offspring will be born. At the same time, this means poorer chances of survival for subsequent litters, even if the next summer proves less extreme.
In these social animals, a dominant female bears most of the offspring, while subordinate females help with rearing. Fewer offspring in one year also means fewer helpers for rearing in the next.
Warm winters soften the blow
However, if the winters become warmer at the same time, this could mitigate the negative consequences of dry summers, writes the University of Zurich.
"Warmer winters lead to an increase in the weight of animals and a higher reproduction rate. Such a climate scenario would therefore not mean a threatening population collapse,” note the researchers.
How individual species will react to climate change is not yet well understood. The results of the study help build an impact on how climate change affects the biology of animals in different situations.