06/25/2014 12:21 EDT | Updated 08/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta Frogs Most At Risk From Climate Change


EDMONTON - The peaceful croaking of frogs in Alberta ponds could eventually go silent, according to an assessment of how climate change could affect the province's plants and animals.

"Our grandchildren are going to see a much different mix of species," said Chris Shank of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, an environmental agency sponsored by government and industry.

Shank said that over the next 40 years, Alberta's average temperature is likely to increase between 2.5 C and 3.5 C, while precipitation is likely to stay about the same.

"It's going to be drier, so the species have to be able to adapt to those changed conditions," said Shank.

Many species are already adapted to a wide variety of conditions and will probably do just fine. Those with narrower or more specific requirements will have to move, either further north or to higher elevations.

Highly mobile animals such as birds won't have much trouble shifting locale. Others, however, will.

"Amphibians — we're talking about frogs, toads and salamanders — are probably the group that will be most affected," Shank said.

"They need standing water to breed in and we expect a lot of those shallow ponds to dry up, at least in some years, and they have very porous skin they need to keep moist. It looks like they're going to be challenged."

Those requirements make it harder for amphibians to hop or crawl across a field or clear cut in search of a fresh pond, said Shank.

As a result, six out of Alberta's 10 amphibian species are considered highly vulnerable to climate change.

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Eight of the 37 species of mammals assessed were considered highly vulnerable. Only five of the 55 species of birds assessed fall into that category.

Climate is most likely to threaten those mammals and birds with narrow habitat requirements, such as Ord’s kangaroo rat in southern Alberta and the mountain-dwelling American pika, as well as the greater sage grouse and whooping crane.

Species likely to flourish as Alberta's climate changes are those already highly familiar — white-tailed deer, coyotes, blue jays and robins.

"It's the ones that biologists call generalists — the ones that don't have specific habitat requirements, specific requirements for temperature or moisture, that eat a variety of species," Shank said.

"They're going to do quite well. They're probably going to increase."

Shank said that climate change pressures in Alberta will also be heavily affected by the province's ongoing industrialization, but scientists haven't figured out how to understand the interplay between those two factors.

"We've identified that as a major issue. The interaction of climate change and human development, to determine how they're going to interact is extremely complex and we haven't determined a way to do that, but people are certainly thinking about it."

Meanwhile, Shank said Alberta could help out the most vulnerable species by finding them new places to live.

"One thing we could do is establish some dispersal corridors to enhance their ability to move in response to climate change."

He also points out most of the vulnerable species are already endangered.

"If we can continue and enhance our efforts to protect species at risk, it's going to have a big effect on how biodiversity in general responds to climate change in Alberta."