How red crabs on Christmas Island speak for the tropics
Research has found that erratic rainfall — which could become more irregular as a result of climate change — could be detrimental to animals that migrate with the dry-wet seasonal cycle. The researchers studied the annual mating migration of the land-dwelling Christmas Island red crab in order to help scientists understand the consequences of climate change for the millions of migratory animals in Earth’s tropical zones.
Oct. 10, 2013 — Each year, the land-dwelling Christmas Island red crab takes an arduous and shockingly precise journey from its earthen burrow to the shores of the Indian Ocean where weeks of mating and egg laying await.The crabs represent species that do not factor into a lot of climate-change research. The majority of studies focus on changes in temperate climates, such as the future severity and duration of summers and winters. Tropical animals migrate in response to wet-dry seasons. If fluctuations in rainfall become more extreme and frequent with climate change, then scores of animals could be in trouble.Native to the Australian territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, millions of the crabs start rolling across the island roads and landscape in crimson waves when the November rains begin. After a two-week scuttle to the sea, the male crab sets up and defends a mating burrow for himself and a female of his kind, the place where she will incubate their clutch for another two weeks. Before the morning of the high tide that precedes the December new moon, the females must emerge to release their millions of eggs into the ocean. A month later, the next generation of crabs comes ashore.But a lack of rain can delay or entirely cancel this meticulous process, according to research conducted through Princeton University that could help scientists understand the consequences of climate change for the millions of migratory animals in Earth’s tropical zones.The researchers report in the journal Global Change Biology that the crabs’ reproductive cycle tracked closely with the amount and timing of precipitation. Writ large, these findings suggest that erratic rainfall could be detrimental to animals that migrate with the dry-wet seasonal cycle that breaks up the tropical year, the researchers report. If fluctuations in rainfall become more extreme and frequent with climate change, then scores of animals could be in trouble — not just the migrators themselves, but also the creatures reliant on them for food.Lead author Allison Shaw, who conducted the work as a Princeton doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, explained that what scientists understand about the possible impact of a warming planet on animal movement is dominated by studies of how creatures that migrate with the summer-to-winter seasonal shifts of Europe and North America will be affected by changes such as the severity and duration of summers and winters. …
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