Shifting weather patterns — milder winters, wetter springs and storms that are more frequent and more severe — are increasingly changing the landscape for scientists who study flora and fauna in the field (see ‘In the face of unpredictability’). Glacier lilies in the US midwest are blooming before their hummingbird pollinators arrive1; malnourished Atlantic salmon are entering Scottish waterways later2; birds and plants are moving higher in the Swiss Alps3; and amphibians in drought-stricken California are struggling to stay alive4. All over, environmental changes are forcing plants and animals to modify their survival tactics.

Ecologists, wildlife biologists, behaviourists and others who do fieldwork must in turn respond and be flexible. They might have to change how they evaluate habitats during field surveys, head into the field earlier or factor more staff and equipment into their budget. If they visit remote regions, they may need to pay more attention to their physical safety as extreme weather events become more violent or frequent, and as changing conditions bring greater threat of wildlife encounters.

As the geographic ranges of studied species shift or become more varied or diffuse, researchers might need more or larger field sites, which requires more travel and hands-on help. Robert Curry, a species-hybridization specialist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, found this out in 2003. He works on the causes and consequences of interbreeding between two chickadee species with overlapping habitats. When he started his research in 1998, he had a field site in a spot where the ranges intersected, as well as single-species zones to the north and south. But by 2003, he and his team had begun to notice changes in the most northerly area, including the emergence of birdsong associated with the southern chickadee species, which had shifted its range northward to adapt to warmer winters5.

Thwarted plans

Some scientists have to shift focus entirely when conditions change. In 1998, Paul Dolman, an applied ecologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, began to explore how and why the habitat of woodlarks was changing in the 19,000-hectare Thetford Forest, a plantation in Breckland, UK. The UK Forestry Commission has managed and logged the forest for decades to support Corsican pine (Pinus nigra ssp. laricio), which thrived in the region’s warm, dry climate. In 2000, the commission began to discuss designating the forest as a conservation site for woodlark (Lullula arborea), whose numbers had peaked at 456, and the plan was finalized in 2006. Despite special protection, the woodlark population has since declined to less than one-third of that number. The question is: why?

Source: Ecology: Change is in the air : Naturejobs

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