Western Courier

Camouflage cant hide climate change

Tabi Jozwick

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On Friday, L. Scott Mills shared his research on the effects of climate change on the seasonal camouflage of snowshoe hares with Western Illinois University biology faculty, graduate and undergraduate students.

Mills, an Associate Vice President of Research for Global Change and Sustainability at the University of Montana, delivered his keynote “How Camouflage Hides Animals While Revealing Mysteries of Climate Change” as part of the Department of Biological Studies’ annual Student Research Symposium.

Mills said that the daily changes in the environment have activated the camouflage in snowshoe hares over time.

“Snowshoe hares have a gland within their brains, the pineal gland, that detects change daily, and that basically releases a cascade of hormones that then lead to the changes of the color to either brown or white,” Mills said.

Mills explained that the camouflage helped protect the snowshoe hares depending on the season.

“Predators have a harder time seeing them when they are camouflaged,” Mills said. “It makes them brown during the summertime, and when there is snow, white in the wintertime. So being camouflaged makes it harder for predators to see them.”

In Mills’ research on the effects of seasonal camouflage on snowshoe hares, he discovered that the seasonal camouflage was out of sync due to the effects resulting from climate change.

“Anybody who lives in a place where’s there is snow, some years it comes early and some years it comes late,” Mills said. “That is going to mean that over time, that in some years, it’s going to be white hares on a brown background and sometimes the brown hare on a white background. That’s always been the case and so that’s why there is all that variability in the populations as to when they change from brown to white that allows them to get through these early years and late years of snow. What we are seeing now is it getting to continuously less and less with snow, so that’s why we see more white on brown.”

Noticing this, Mills began to look at how location affects the climate change effects on seasonal camouflage.

“We’re starting to look at hares in other places and species in other places,” Mills said. “We don’t yet know if these responses are the same. We know that the mismatch is about the same, but we haven’t yet studied them.”

Mills believed that further questions would need to be answered in his research on seasonal camouflage on snowshoe hares.

“The mismatch for sure was due to climate change,” Mills said. “The question is if evolution can keep up with climate change.”

Mills noticed that the seasonal mismatch also occurred to similar species as the snowshoe hares.

“All 20 of the similar species that I think are experiencing that same,” Mills said. “We just don’t know all of the details of it yet.”

Mills also wanted to expand on his seasonal camouflage research by looking at these other species and diving deeper into the genetic code for the results of these changes. “We want to look at other species,” Mills said.

“We want to do more field observations. We want to see what other species are affected by this mismatch the same way. We want to understand the genetic releases of the other species because you have to understand how back the evolution can happen, and so we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

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Camouflage cant hide climate change