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Canaries in the coalmine - impacts of extreme heat events on flying-foxes

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Significant impacts of climate change will emerge through shifts in the intensity and the frequency of extreme weather and climate events. Such extreme events are the way in which people, animals and plants will directly experience climate change, yet very little is known about how these events affect natural systems. Australian flying-foxes (Pteropus spp.) have emerged as models for studying the biological impacts of extreme heat events. Drawing from a suite of behavioural, physiological, demographic, and weather data, we show that extreme heat events have dramatic and predictable effects on these species, with temperatures exceeding 42o C causing species-, sex- and age class-specific mass mortality at a landscape scale. We illustrate these impacts using our data from the three most recent summer heat events, during which more than 60,000 flying-foxes died. In addition, we demonstrate that extreme heat events are already frequent sources of extrinsic mortality for the species, and that the impacts are set to escalate further this century. Flying-foxes perform key ecological roles as pollinators and seed dispersers, and therefore the impacts reverberate throughout Australia's forest ecosystems. Furthermore, the species are highly colonial and have a penchant for roosting in (peri)urban environments so that flying-fox die-offs are particularly conspicuous events, raising concern that similar impacts occur in species with more solitary and cryptic lifestyles. Thus, our findings provide a disturbing window into the future of Australia’s biodiversity in a warming climate.
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