Humans are putting ecosystems to the test in the global science experiment that is climate change. Organisms are shifting to new habitats as their preferred climate moves up in elevation or poleward (or is outright destroyed), and are going extinct at rates amped up about 1,000 times by humans.

Ecologists have yet to settle on an estimate of how many will manage to weather this change—whether by moving or by acclimating—and how many will perish. Their predictions have varied widely, with climate change causing between zero and 54 percent of species to disappear. Many of these estimates are based on computer models that try to predict extinction based on where species’ ideal climate will move as temperatures warm. But a new study, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks to the past to understand how over 500 species have responded to the warming climate so far, then uses those patterns to project future declines. “This paper nicely builds on [previous predictions] by using actual observed data on where species are over time,” says Lauren Buckley, an ecologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the research. “There’s a flood of recent research saying we need to look beyond mean temperatures when understanding how species respond to climate change.”

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