Shoal of fish

Climate change is disrupting ‘the language of life’ across all types of ecosystems

Climate change is disrupting essential chemical communication processes between organisms – ‘the language of life’ – in all types of the Earth’s ecosystems according to a new opinion paper co-authored by the University of Hull, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Université de Liège and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research GmbH – UFZ, published today.

The paper ‘Becoming nose-blind - climate change impacts on chemical communication’ is a comprehensive overview of existing evidence and insight across marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. It is the first time that researchers have demonstrated that climate change affects interactions between organisms in different realms in similar patterns.

Chemical communication plays an essential role in ecosystems, enabling organisms to mate and interact with each other; locate predators, food and habitats; and sense their environment. The opinion paper demonstrates the extent to which alterations in temperature, carbon dioxide and pH levels – that are created as a result of climate change – can affect every single step of this fundamental way that organisms communicate with each other. These chemical communication processes regulate interactions in the Earth’s ecosystems and are essential to our environment.

Dr Christina C. Roggatz, Research Fellow in Marine Chemical Ecology at the University of Hull and lead author of the paper, said: “This paper is a wake-up call. We are heavily reliant on the Earth’s ecosystems and the chemical communications that regulate them. The predominantly negative effects that climate change has upon the language of life within terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could have a range of far-reaching implications for the future of our planet and human wellbeing, for example by impacting food security and fundamental ecosystem services that make our planet habitable.”

Published today in the Global Change Biology journal, the paper is an international collaboration between researchers from the UK, Germany and Belgium who are all experts in the field of chemical ecology across the different realms of terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems.

Combining examples from these different systems, the paper reveals universal patterns of impacts from climate change across different realms. It identifies key aspects that urgently need to be understood in order to improve our ability to predict and mitigate the effects of climate change. The authors also call for a systematic, universal framework approach to address highlighted knowledge gaps.

Dr. Roggatz added: “Although a growing number of studies suggest that climate change-associated stressors cause adverse effects on the communication between organisms, knowledge of the underlying mechanisms remains scarce. We urgently need a systematic approach to be able to compare results and fully understand the potentially disruptive impact that climate change is having upon each step of this fundamental communication process. Understanding this means we are better equipped to predict and protect the future of our planet.”

Dr. Mahasweta Saha, co-author and Senior Scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said: “Our paper highlights that there is an obvious need for prioritising research in understanding chemically mediated mechanisms across different realms. This will lead to a better understanding and assessment of how climate change-induced stressors affect interactions in freshwater, marine and terrestrial organisms.”

Professor François Verheggen, co-author and Professor of Entomology, Université de Liège highlighted: “In terrestrial ecosystems, plants and animals commonly communicate with odours and we have been studying the effects of climate change with growing concern over the past years. However, this new perspective shows that the effects we found in terrestrial systems strikingly resemble findings in other system at the mechanistic level despite the different stressors.”

Dr. Patrick Fink, co-author and Research Group Leader at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, said: “Chemical communication is the ubiquitous language of life on earth - but this is being jeopardised by global change. There's no talking with words for life under water, so aquatic organisms 'talk' in chemical signals. But this fine-tuned 'language' is in peril. Globally changing climate and water chemistry are causing acidification threats that may disturb chemical information exchange among freshwater and marine organisms.”

Dr. Jörg Hardege, co-author and Reader in Chemical Ecology, University of Hull, said: “It is becoming clear that regardless of the environment an organism inhabits, the sea, freshwater or land, the climate change associated increase in CO2 is altering the way how organisms' sensory systems function.

“Although we are starting to understand the mechanisms how olfactory disruption, the longer-term consequences on animal interactions and survival can currently only be speculated about, leaving an urgent need to further research.”

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