Many species are adjusting to the Earth's warming by migrating to higher altitudes and latitudes, a new study by the Department of Biology of the University of York said.  Researchers said that species have been rapidly reshuffling, shifting in an effort to adjust to a shifting climate.

Species have moved towards the poles as they are seeking cooler conditions at a rate almost three times the normal rate.  Species are moving toward higher altitudes at two times the former rate.

When all factors were accounted for, the study, which included more than 1,300 species in 23 groups divided by taxonomy and geography, said that the mean travel poleward of all species was 17 km per decade. The mean travel uphill was 11m, two to three times more rapid than expected. Species are shifting most rapidly in areas with the greatest changes in temperature, the study found.

An analysis of more than 200 different species of animals and plants by the research team has shown a specific trend of movement. On an average, species have shifted to higher elevations at 12.2 meters per decade and, more dramatically, to higher latitudes at 17.6 kilometers per decade.

These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the equator at around 20 cm per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century, project leader and professor of conservation biology at York Chris Thomas said.   

Realization of how fast species are moving because of climate change indicates that many species may indeed be heading rapidly towards extinction, where climatic conditions are deteriorating. On the other hand, other species are moving to new areas where the climate has become suitable; so there will be some winners as well as many losers, Thomas said.

Although species are moving much more rapidly than the expected mean, they are not all shifting toward colder climates, the study said.   Twenty percent of species are moving in uncharacteristic directions.