Researchers from the University of Utah have published a study in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B detailing the lab experiments that showed climate change affects the ability of woodrats to feed on their toxic creosote diet, meaning that warmer temperatures affect the ability of plant-eating animals to feed on certain plants containing toxic compounds.
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Biologist Denise Dearing, senior author of the study revealed that the study adds to the body of knowledge that indicates climate change affects mammals and their feeding behavior.
"This phenomenon will result in animals changing their diets and reducing the amount of plant material they eat, relocating to cooler habitats or going extinct in local areas," said Dearing, a distinguished professor and chair of biology at the university.
The study was carried out with Patrice Kurnath, a biology doctoral student who noted that "We found that desert woodrats have a harder time eating their natural diet at slightly warmer temperatures,” adding that global warming impacts negatively on the tendency of plant-eating animals to access their preferred food sources.
The point here is that many animals that consume plants consume an appropriate amount of plant toxins or poisons that other animals may not be able to put up with, but with climate change the ability of these natural consumers to eat these plant diets becomes a challenge.
For instance, woodrats and some other rodents eat creosote bush or juniper among other poisonous plants, having developed the enzymes that neutralize the toxic compounds contained in these plants; but their natural ability to overcome these toxins becomes impaired under a changed climate – rendering the normal diets rather poisonous.
Dearing revealed that almost 40% of mammals eat plants. "Most plants produce toxins, so the majority of plant-eating mammals eat toxic compounds, and this may become more difficult to deal with as the climate warms," she said.
According to Kurnath, some of the animals that consume some amount of toxicity in their plant diets are marmots, deer, pikas, moose, bighorn, possums, rabbits, elk, and domestic animals such as cows, sheep, and horses. She revealed any free-range domestic animal will face plants with toxins.
Natalie Merz, a graduate is part of the study, and she noted that lab experiments conducted suggest plant chemicals either become more toxic with warmer temperatures, or the ability of animals to overcome the toxins drop with climate change.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, American Society of Mammalogists and Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.