Marine Species are Shifting Towards the Poles

Elizabeth Borneman


Global warming has caused a shift in species’ ideal habitats, prompting everything from mushrooms to trees, mammals to amphibians and other terrestrial species to seek out different ecological zones in which to thrive. New research is collecting data on marine species that are also experiencing climate related habitat migrations in greater numbers than scientists anticipated.

As species’ normal habitats are becoming warmer, habitat is lost due to human infrastructure, or habitats are becoming hostile in other ways, species of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi are looking for other locations nearby that provide an environment in which they can thrive.

Species often look for cooler climates, which means heading toward Earth’s poles, up mountains, or into other areas that provide shelter from the temperature fluctuations brought on by global warming. 

Tracking Marine Habitat Shifts

A recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution compiled data from 258 peer-reviewed studies that analyzed over 12,000 species and over 30,000 habitat shifts in different plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. The study created BioShifts, a comprehensive analysis of habitat shifts that have affected marine and terrestrial animals because of global warming and climate changes. 

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The researchers found that marine species were shifting their habitats toward Earth’s poles on an average of six kilometers (3.7 miles) per year. While this doesn’t sound like a dramatically quick shift, terrestrial species are moving poleward on average of 1.8 meters per year (or about 5.9 feet). 

Graph visualizing the latitude shifts of species collected from 258 peer-reviewed studies on the responses of species to climate change.  Graph: Lenoir et al., 2020.
Graph visualizing the latitude shifts of species collected from 258 peer-reviewed studies on the responses of species to climate change. Graph: Lenoir et al., 2020.

There are a few reasons why marine species feel the effects of climate change more acutely than those on land and are able to move faster in reaction to temperature changes. Air conducts heat 25 times less effectively than water, which means the ocean is heating up a lot faster than the land is. Many marine species are cold-blooded and don’t have the regulatory mechanisms that many terrestrial species have to handle fluctuations in their internal temperatures. Additionally, they are able to shift towards more sufficient habitats because there aren’t cities, roads, and other human infrastructure blocking the way.

Barriers to Terrestrial Habitat Shifts

On land, habitat loss and climate change can force species to break up in different directions. While their internal mechanisms are prompting them to head to cooler places, they may be blocked by human development and pushed further away from their ideal habitable zones. 

Further Research

The researchers behind BioShifts know that there is still a lot more work to be done to fully map the habitat crisis facing many of Earth’s species. The study looked at charismatic species, or species that have been targeted for research studies because of human interest in them. As it stands, BioShifts has only gathered data on 0.6% of all of the known life on Earth. Despite the admitted inherent biases in the human research portion of this work, the BioShifts database is nevertheless impressive and valuable in its scope. 

The Study

Lenoir, J., Bertrand, R., Comte, L., Bourgeaud, L., Hattab, T., Murienne, J., & Grenouillet, G. (2020). Species better track climate warming in the oceans than on land. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1-16.

Lenoir, J. (2020, May 25). The isotherms race: Upslope in elevation and poleward in latitude. Nature Research Ecology & Evolution Community.

Cassella, Carly. Thousands of Species Are Fleeing to Earth’s Poles en Masse, And a Pattern’s Emerging. 31 May 2020. Retrieved from


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.