Extreme Weather Impacts Wildlife Too
Extreme weather caused by climate change has had a devastating impact on the human residents of B.C. The heat dome in June 2021 led to over 600 deaths in the province, while in September 2020, wildfires in and around B.C. led to Vancouver having some of the worst air quality in the world. The impact on wildlife and biodiversity, however, is not well understood and since the timing and the intensity of extreme weather events are unpredictable, it is difficult to research. This knowledge gap led the researchers of the Long-term Biodiversity Monitoring Program at the UBC Farm to use their data to investigate what impact extreme smoke and heat had on the wildlife that call the UBC Farm home.
The project has used automated cameras and audio recorders across the UBC Farm since 2019, gathering photos and sounds on birds, bats and mammals. The researchers assessed the data from the periods of the heat dome and wildfire smoke, and found that some, but not all, species decreased their activity. For birds and coyotes in particular, their behaviour increased slightly during the period of intense wildfire smoke.
“We often imagine that extreme weather events will have dramatic effects on wildlife,” says Dr. Matthew Mitchell, Research Associate in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems. “While coyotes and bats seem to decrease their activity with wildfire smoke, squirrels and birds can actually be more active. Some of this might be because of predator-prey interactions, where squirrels notice coyotes are less active so they in turn become more active. Or it might be because species like birds need to broadcast their presence and territories more when it is smoky.”
The researchers do not yet know why the animals behave as they do, but intend to find out more as they gather more data over the long-term.
Funded by an NSERC Discovery Grant and UBC Campus as a Living Laboratory, the project team was also supported by the UBC Farm Undergraduate Research Competition, which funded two students to get involved in the research.
“I was amazed by how many different forms of data we were collecting, ranging from physical surveys to audio recordings to motion-sensor trail camera photos,” says Julia Taylor, one of the undergraduate research assistants who worked on the project in summer 2022, adding that this experience has influenced her future career goals after she graduates in a few months.
Another student working on the project, Brooke Carlisle, found working with new and emerging data rewarding, even though it pointed to a lack of data on heat waves and terrestrial ecosystems.
“The 2021 heat dome has been well documented for its impacts on marine invertebrates, and previous heat waves have been linked to mortality of marine birds,” says Carlisle. “However, we found fewer studies on how animal communities on land react to extreme heat events. I’m glad that we are helping to strengthen this area of scientific literature that needs further research.”
Agriculture and Biodiversity
Wildlife and farmlands have important and beneficial interactions, says Dr. Mitchell, adding that a large proportion of the threatened species in Canada live in agricultural areas since agriculture has driven the loss of their habitat.
“Wildlife species don’t just live in pristine habitats untouched by people. They are also integral parts of agricultural systems and can provide really important benefits to people, including farmers,” says Dr. Mitchell. “This includes pollination, pest control, and opportunities to appreciate and learn about nature. Understanding how to manage agricultural landscapes so that they also support biodiversity and wildlife species is one of the best ways to conserve nature and has the additional benefit of also increasing agricultural sustainability.”
Carlisle adds that this research may also point to the importance of having cooler, shaded areas within working landscapes to provide refuge for animals experiencing heat stress during these heat waves.
The project is ongoing, and the researchers are keeping an eye out both for long-term changes in the species they monitor, as well as any effects from more sudden extreme weather events. They will also be exploring ways to expand automated monitoring beyond the UBC Farm to investigate trends in biodiversity across Vancouver and the region to better understand more widespread impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.
For Dr. Mitchell, the project hits close to home, literally. As well as conducting research at the UBC Farm, he also lives close by and his kids spend a lot of time at the farm.
“Climate change is something that I think about basically every day and something that, as a parent, causes me daily stress and worry,” says Dr. Mitchell. “This project gives me an opportunity to contribute a little bit towards understanding, and potentially mitigating, the effects of climate change at a local scale and help conserve biodiversity in my neighbourhood.”