msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/5/2008 6:00:12 PM ET 2008-05-05T22:00:12

While global warming is expected to be strongest at higher latitudes, it looks like species living in the tropics are at greater risk, researchers said in a study published Monday.

Tropical species are accustomed to living in a small temperature range and thus may be unable to cope with changes of even a few degrees, according to an analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There’s a strong relationship between your physiology and the climate you live in. In the tropics many species appear to be living at or near their thermal optimum, a temperature that lets them thrive. But once temperature gets above the thermal optimum, fitness levels most likely decline quickly and there may not be much they can do about it,” researcher Joshua Tewksbury said in a statement.

The research was led by Tewksbury, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington, and Curtis Deutsch, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Concern over global warming has largely focused on arctic species like the polar bear. But such animals may be accustomed to living in a wide range of temperatures, while there tends to be little change in the tropics, so there has been no need for species there to adapt.

“The direct effects of climate change on the organisms we studied appear to depend a lot more on the organisms’ flexibility than on the amount of warming predicted for where they live,” Tewksbury said. “The tropical species in our data were mostly thermal specialists, meaning that their current climate is nearly ideal and any temperature increases will spell trouble for them.”

“In contrast,” the researchers wrote, “species at higher latitudes have broader thermal tolerance and are living in climates that are currently cooler than their physiological optima, so that warming may even enhance their fitness.”

“Ultimately, organisms with the greatest risk of species extinction from rapid climate change are those with a low tolerance for warming, limited acclimation ability, and reduced dispersal,” they added. “Most terrestrial organisms having these characteristics are tropical and many of these organisms are occupying disappearing climate regimes. This conclusion is troubling because it places the greatest biological risks of climate change in the tropics where biodiversity is greatest.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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