What lifeforms might and might not survive climate change?

The cockroach will definitely outlive us all.

According to a recent study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), one-fourth of all species face extinction. The study contends that climate change caused by humans is playing a big role in what many scientists call the next mass extinction.

As history has shown, life is pretty adept at soldiering on. Five mass extinction events have taken place over Earth’s biological history. Moreover, many scientists believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs paved the way for the rise of mammals and ultimately, humans. But according to a story in BBC Future, humanity might not be so lucky this time.

So, what lifeforms might, or might not, survive climate change? “I don’t think it will be the humans. I think we’ll go quite early on,” Julie Gray, plant molecular biologist at the University of Sheffield says. Homo-sapiens are renowned for their adaptability. However, people reproduce relatively slow and in small numbers. Lifeforms that can put out a lot of progeny in a short period of time might have a better chance of surviving.

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The Shifting Sands of Climate Change

But theorizing about just which organisms might make it is a lot more complex than just reproduction. Climate change is undeniable, but its ever-shifting sands, so to speak, are difficult to predict. A myriad of complex, dynamic, and unpredictable factors go into forecasting the vulnerability of species due to climate change.

For example, frogs are one of the more publicized casualties of the current mass extinction. Amphibians can’t regulate their body temperature, so they’re more vulnerable to changing temperatures. According to BBC Future, however, the American bullfrog may actually fill more habitats as temperatures rise. In other words, ascertaining which lifeforms might survive isn’t an exact science.

But curiosity often trumps uncertainty. With rising temperatures and desertification, hardy desert-dwelling plants make good candidates for survival. Other flora that can disperse their seeds over long distances, like coconuts floating over the vastness of the ocean, have an advantage as well.

Naturally, adaptability also comes into play. For instance, plants that can change their flowering times might fare well in higher temperatures. In another dynamic facet of human-caused ecological change, flexibility in flowering times might give non-native species an advantage. Researchers have seen this in invasive insects.

But what about that most famous of survivors? The cockroach. Cockroaches have survived every mass extinction. According to Robert Nasi, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), cockroaches’ penchant for survival comes from two main factors: their uncanny knack for hiding in “buffered conditions (e.g. underground),” and their ancient evolutionary history. “Ancient species appear more resilient than younger ones,” Nasi says. These traits play a huge role in whether or not a species can survive changes in the environment.

Intellectual Extinction

While homo sapiens might not have an ancient lineage, humanity’s evolution has gifted the intellectual skills to adapt. Humans could take a page out of the cockroach playbook and hide underground.

But a far better option would be to use the gift of intelligence that evolution has provided to reduce carbon emissions and step up conservation efforts. But given the current political trend, it seems that it is rational thinking that has gone extinct.