This is the battle that nobody wins. According to a new study, climate change will adversely affect every single primate species on Earth. That’s every ape, monkey, gibbon, lemur and loris, no matter how super or strong they might be.
The study, published in the International Journal of Primatology, reveals that primate habitats will, on average, feel the pinch of a warming world 10 percent more severely than non-primate habitats. Not only will temperatures change, so will rainfall, with some species experiencing 7.5 percent more or less precipitation per degree C of global warming.
This is troubling news for the world’s primates, as many species rely on narrow habitats or have extremely specialized diets. Some primates only eat one or two things, so their food and habitats are particularly sensitive to disruption. Many primates are already endangered by habitat loss, hunting, or the illegal pet trade, so this additional threat could push several species over the brink.
Lead author Tanya Graham of Concordia University’s Matthews Climate Lab says this new study helps to fill the gap in our knowledge about how climate change will impact primates as a group, something that has never been done before. “There are only a handful of studies that look at the potential effects of future climate changes on primates, and, these studies, in general, cover only a small number of species,” she says. “There was a need for a comprehensive climate change study that included all non-human primate species.”
Graham says the results of their study, although dramatic, didn’t exactly surprise her. “We know that climate is changing everywhere across the globe, so we expected that our results would show anticipated temperature increases and precipitation changes across all primate species ranges. We also know that more than half of primate species are already threatened with extinction, which may make them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and that certain areas in the tropics have high species richness where climate extremes such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, and storms could have devastating impacts on populations of many different species. It was, however, quite impactful to see the results of combining these variables together.”
The paper and its supplementary materials break down how the authors predict climate change will affect more than 350 different species. One species that stands out to Graham was the endangered Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus), which the researchers calculated will face a nearly 8 percent reduction in rainfall. “This could have negative impacts on food supply, habitat and even the availability of drinking water,” she says.
Many of the other primates the paper identifies as facing the most dramatic effects of climate change are not even currently identified as being species of conservation concern. Graham says this paper may help to establish conservation priorities for these species in the future. “Really, we need to consider all of the identified species,” she says.
The paper doesn’t try to predict exactly how changes in temperature or rainfall will affect each species. Graham says “there is much more work to be done in terms of evaluating the impacts of climate change on individual species, particularly in terms of understanding each species' sensitivity and adaptive capacity to climate change.” She added that further investigation into possible mitigation strategies is also needed.
To me, one of the most striking facts about this paper is that it condenses everything we know about the world’s primates to reveal many things that we don’t know. For example, the paper clearly illustrates that we don’t have scientific data on the foods eaten by dozens of primate species. There are even a few species for which scientists have not documented their habitat needs. We’ll never understand how to protect these species from climate change or any other threat until these data gaps are resolved.