Biodiversity Has Increased During Earth’s Warm Periods. But Climate Change Isn’t Off the Hook

A new study indicates that the number of species grew when global temperatures increased during periods in the geologic past. But that may not matter when it comes to rapid, man-made climate change.

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Alex Hare

It’s always nice to find people willing to challenge prevailing paradigms to seek truth. For some, that can mean doubling back on your own hard work. Take University of York biologist Peter Mayhew, who recently found that global warming might actually increase the number of species on the planet, contrary to a previous report that higher temperatures meant fewer life forms – a report that was his own.

In Mayhew’s initial 2008 study, low biodiversity among marine invertebrates appeared to coincide with warmer temperatures on Earth over the last 520 million years. But Mayhew and his colleagues decided to reexamine their hypothesis, this time using data that were “a fairer sample of the history of life.” With this new collection of material, they found a complete reversal of the relationship between species richness and temperature from what their previous paper argued: the number of different groups present in the fossil record was higher, rather than lower, during “greenhouse phases.”

“We’ve got a different story, really,” he said. “The net effect seems to be to improve biodiversity rather than reduce it.”

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Their previous findings rested on an assumption that fossil records can be taken at face value to represent biodiversity changes throughout history. This isn’t necessarily the case, because there are certain periods with higher-quality fossil samples, and some that are much more difficult to sample well. Aware of this bias, Mayhew’s team used data that standardized the number of fossils examined throughout history and accounted for other variables like sea level changes that might influence biodiversity in their new study to see if their old results would hold up.

Two years later, the results did not. But then why isn’t the Earth increasingly teeming with life as our temperatures get warmer? While the switch may prompt some to assert that climate change is not, in fact, detrimental to living creatures, Mayhew explained that the timescales in his team’s study are huge – over 500 million years – and therefore inappropriate for the shorter periods that we might look at as humans concerned about global warming. Many global warming concerns are focused on the next century, he said – and the lifetime of a species is typically one to 10 million years.

“I do worry that these findings will be used by the climate skeptic community to say ‘look climate warming is fine,’ he said. Not to mention the myriad other things we seem to do to create a storm of threats to biodiversity – think of what habitat destruction, overfishing, and pollution can do for a species’ viability. Those things, Mayhew explained, give the organisms a far greater challenge in coping with climate change than they would have had in the absence of humans.

“If we were to relax all these pressures on biodiversity and allow the world to recover over millions of years in a warmer climate, then my prediction is it would be an improvement in biodiversity,” he said. So it looks like we need to curb our reckless treatment of the planet first, if we want to eventually see a surge in the number of species on the planet as temperatures get warmer. We don’t have 500 million years to wait.

Tara Thean is a contributor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @tarathean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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