Friday, April 8, 2011
Part of the herd grazing at Chillingham Castle. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia
Climate change is affecting when Chillingham cattle breed and the survival of their calves in the UK (United Kingdom) according to a new study in the Journal of Animal Ecology.
Ecologists looked at data from the past 60 years on Chillingham cattle (Bos taurus), a small population of cows found only in Northumberland, England.
Chillingham Castle shown within Northumberland. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia
Records of these animals have been collected since 1860 - information that can help scientists better understand how climate change affects phenology or the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events.
"The Chillingham cattle data unique and, as far as we know, the longest mammal phenology dataset in the world. It's an amazing dataset," said lead author Sarah Burthe, researcher at the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, in a press release.
Chillingham cattle breed throughout the year, but the data shows that more and more calves are being born in the winter. "Winter-born calves don't do very well and are more likely to die before they reach the age of one," said Burthe. "This suggests that the cattle are responding to climate change but this is having a negative impact on them."
The researchers postulate that warmer springs are shifting the breeding schedules.
"Cattle have a nine-month gestation period. Warm springs allow vegetation to start growing earlier, providing the cattle with more nutritious plant growth, and more cows conceive earlier as a result," explains Burthe in the release.
The findings highlight the importance of studying the effects of ecological changes on species expected to be able to adapt well.
"Understanding the consequences of phenology change and how widespread these responses are, even in relatively flexible species such as cattle that are able to breed year-round, helps us to predict the potential magnitude of changes caused by a warming climate," said Burthe.