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Climate change may cause dramatic changes in ape behaviour resulting in a further restriction of their available habitat, according to new research published in the Journal of Biogeography.

As temperatures rise, apes will have to spend more time resting to avoid overheating. With less time available for other activities such as socialising, which helps to keeps groups together, and feeding, ape communities could collapse, with some presently occupied regions eventually becoming uninhabitable.

‘A habitat is unsuitable if it forces the apes to spend too much time on basic survival – and a change in climate can shift the delicate balance of these time budgets,’ explained lead author Julia Lehmann of Roehampton University.

Together with scientists from the universities of Bournemouth and Oxford, Lehmann modelled the effects of climate change on the behaviour and distribution of African apes using data from wild populations. They found that if temperatures rise as predicted, chimpanzees may lose up to half of their remaining habitat, while as much as three quarters of the habitat currently occupied by gorilla populations could become unsuitable.

‘In reality, the effects of climate change on African apes may be much worse, as our model does not take into account possible anthropogenic effects, such as habitat destruction by humans and the hunting of apes for bushmeat,’ said Lehmann.

‘Our results highlight that solving the direct local threats, such as hunting and habitat loss due to human activities, may not be sufficient to prevent the extinction of African apes. Ensuring safe havens in optimal habitat must be a critical component of any conservation strategy, lest all current conservation efforts prove to be in vain,’ the study’s authors warned.

Published in Geographical magazine, October 2010