Climate change link to decline of shorebirds

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Climate change could be causing a substantial decline in populations of shorebirds, new research has found, prompting warnings over the protection of endangered species.

An international team of researchers, including those from the University of Sheffield, have found that nest predation - where eggs are stolen by predators - is rising globally.

Analysing data covering 70 years, they discovered this is higher is northern areas such as the Arctic where it has risen three-fold, suggesting climate change may be impacting.

A “double whammy” of fewer babies hatching, combined with a decline in the survival of adult shorebirds, has had a devastating effect on population numbers they say, with species such as the Spoonbill Sandpiper becoming critically endangered.

While the precise mechanisms are quite complex, Professor Robert Freckleton of the Department for Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield has said, it looks as though changes in climate playing a leading role in driving such changes.

“This is particularly threatening for this group of birds as large numbers of species are declining anyway - and many have formerly relied on the Arctic to provide safer breeding grounds,” he said.

Prof Tamás Székely, from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, said: “These findings are alarming.

“The Earth is a fragile planet with complex ecosystems, thus changes in predator-prey interactions can lead to a cascading effects through the food web with detrimental consequences for many organisms thousands of kilometres away. This could be the last nail in the coffin for critically endangered species such as the Spoonbill Sandpiper.”

It comes as a separate study at the university finds high levels of pollution in many of the world’s major cities are hampering plants and insects’ ability to defend themselves or survive.

Plants exposed to high levels of nitrogen dioxide, found in smog, produce more chemicals in their leaves, researchers at Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences have found, with feeding insects becoming unwell as a result.

“Many people may be aware that insect pollinators, such as the thousands of species of bees, along with flies, moths and butterflies, are crucial for food production – but they also ensure the long-term survival of wildflowers, shrubs and trees,” said Dr Stuart Campbell, who led the study.

“Insects are a crucial part of nature and the world we live in.