Climate change disrupting 'language of life' across all ecosystems

Two teenage lions sniffing in nature. Copy space.
Chemical signals - the language of life - are being disrupted by climate change. (Getty)

Living beings don’t just communicate through sound – we also communicate through chemicals using smell to find mates, food and stay away from predators.

But climate change is disrupting these processes, which Hull University researchers describe as ‘the language of life’.

Most worryingly, the change, driven by warming temperatures, is affecting organisms not just in one place, but across land, rivers and oceans – in the same patterns.

It is the first time that researchers have demonstrated that climate change affects interactions between organisms in different realms in a similar way.

Read more: Melting snow in Himalayas drives growth of green sea slime visible from space

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.

Dr Christina C. Roggatz, research fellow in Marine Chemical Ecology at the University of Hull and lead author of the paper, said: “This 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.

“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.”

Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly right

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 have also called for a systematic, universal framework approach to address highlighted knowledge gaps.

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.”

Watch: Major cities including London facing 'increasing risk of drought'