From quiver trees to kelp, watch for ‘species-on-the-move’ amid climate crisis

Posted on December 14, 2023

“Fish don’t need passports; they can just move.” And boy, are they moving, says Dr Romina Henriques

She is a marine biologist in UP’s Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology who knows very well how different ocean species in South Africa are shifting.

That is why she joined a global chorus of scientists calling on citizens to watch for “species-on-the-move”.

“We are in the midst of the largest redistribution of species in the shortest geological time frame ever," she says.

“Most species adapted to their environments over millions of years of evolution. And now we are asking them to do the same in just a few generations. It is no longer thousands and millions of years; you're looking at 10 to 20 to 50 years,” she says. 

From quiver trees to kelp, on land and underwater, resource or pest, the climate crisis is pushing and pulling biodiversity in a way that is already having dire consequences for humans.

“This is happening. It's not in 2030, and it's not if we don't meet our targets for emissions. We are already in the midst of species-on-the-move. We are in the midst of climatic change at planetary level. And we have to find a way to mitigate it and adapt to it,” says Dr Henriques.

In South Africa, for instance, some of our most important industrial fishery systems are distributed along the west coast and into the Eastern Cape. “What happens if or when those fish start moving away?”

Anchovies are shifting out of the West Coast into the South Coast, because the change in the marine systems of South Africa is quite complex.” She explains that because of the way the Benguela and Agulhas currents interact, not only are rainfall patterns shifting inland, but parts of the west coast and southern Cape will cool, while the eastern coast will become warmer.

Kelp has already moved into the southern Cape, being seen in De Hoop,” says Dr Henriques. 

All of this means that the resources that commercial fishing trawlers, as well as recreational and subsistence fishers, rely on, are leaving to find a better niche.

As are garden birds, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, bees and other pollinators that food and flower crops depend on, and even large and small game across the world. Grasses, trees and shrubs – the food and homes of people, insects and other animals – are also finding greener pastures.

We can, and must, sit up and pay attention to these species-on-the-move, says Dr Henriques. 


She and her fellow scientists have honed in on this warning sign of the climate crisis because of how it pulls at our heartstrings: most of us have an intrinsic sense that other living things have value; we all have cultural and spiritual connections to our land and waters; and our daily struggle to survive, just like these other species-on-the-move, will be threatened by new diseases or a lack of water.

“We don’t know how we will thrive in a completely different environment,” says Dr Henriques. “What was once there, is going to change.”

But watching for species-on-the-move at home, at work or on holiday is really a way to empower the public toward productive climate action, and not something that should leave citizens with unproductive worry and feelings of hopelessness and fear.

Inspired by Senegalese forest scientist, Baba Dioum, Dr Henriques believes that people will ultimately galvanise to protect what they know and love. 

In 1968, Dioum had written: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Dr Henriques mentions the recent example of communities in the Eastern Cape banding together on shared values, indigenous knowledge and a love for their land, to stop oil company Shell from conducting seismic surveys.

“So what power do we have? We have power! What did Siya Kolisi say? Our power comes from being stronger together.”

Besides encouraging our observationist tendencies in our own backyards, work or recreational spaces (which may lead to grassroots community movements and even national political pressure), Dr Henriques says citizens can also help scientists map species-on-the-move.

Using an app called iNaturalist, she says, anyone can record species and provide a geographical (location) reference for it. 

“So if you see something interesting that has never been there, definitely please do it, because we also use it as a teaching tool here at UP where students can download the information and map it,” she says.

Ultimately, species-on-the-move in the context of the climate crisis is not just about not seeing a lion at the Kruger Park or not catching your favourite kabeljou on a fishing trip, says Dr Henriques. 

"Species-on-the-move can impact ecosystem structure and function, food security, human health, livelihoods, culture and even the climate itself through feedback to the climate system, presenting a wide variety of potential pathways for people to understand that climate change affects them personally as individuals," she writes jointly with her colleagues. 

- Author ScienceLink

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