How Animals Are Going To Migrate As The Planet Gets Warm

Thousands of species are going to end up living in different places as climate change forces them to find new homes.

For evidence of climate change, look to the animals. Warming temperatures are already causing several species of birds, mammals, and fish to pick up and move their living arrangements.


Take the Carolina chickadee. This fluttering little garden bird has moved seven miles northward in the last decade, according to a recent study by Cornell University researchers.

Where might the animal kingdom end up by mid-century? That’s the question tackled by Lifemapper, an initiative from the University of Kansas that models possible future habitat shifts. It uses data for where 138,000 species have been spotted in the past, along with the conditions they were found in, then models where they might go given different climate change scenarios. The maps here show two species we picked out: The jaguarundi, also known as the eyra cat, which is normally found in South and Central America, and the polar bear. The yellow points show data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an enormous repository of animal sightings based in Denmark, while the red blobs indicate possible new habitats in 2050.

Aimee Stewart, senior software developer at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, says Lifemapper is aimed at two main groups. Casual browsers can get a “general sense of what species’ ranges look like and how they might change.” Anyone can run an analysis or look through thousands of previous searches in the species archive. In addition, Lifemapper is a set of tools for professional researchers who can input their own data and for educators. Partnered with the University of Michigan School of Education, the institute created a curricula for middle school and high school students based on Lifemapper maps. “This project was in 130 schools in Michigan and Kansas last year,” says Stewart.

As with any model of the future, there’s a lot of room for uncertainty. But the larger point comes across: Climate change is already shifting where animals want to live, and it’s probably only an early taste of what’s to come.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.