Animal burrows are climate change refuges

A study using museum records accessed via GBIF highlights the importance of 'ecosystem engineers' in providing places of refuge in a warming climate.

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 32 museum records accessed via GBIF
Photo: Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Photo: Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The burrows created by animals such as tortoises, seabirds and various mammals are in urgent need of conservation as refuges from temperature extremes in a changing climate, according to this study.

The researchers focussed on the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) in the southeastern United States, which uses varied conditions within its burrows to maintain moderate and stable body temperatures on hot days, while keeping relatively warm overnight.

Data on the occurrence of the tortoise were obtained from museum records accessed through GBIF, as well as a wildlife database in Florida.

Climate change is predicted to increase maximum air temperatures throughout the geographic range of the species, with impacts most severe in Florida. This highlights the importance of burrows as refuges from extreme conditions, not just for the ‘ecosystem engineers’ themselves but for many other species that use the burrows for shelter. The researchers note that large burrowing animals are widely distributed around the world  (for example aardvarks, pocket gophers, rabbits, seabirds, other tortoises and wombats) and may provide similar climate refuges for countless other species.

Pike, D.A. & Mitchell, J.C., 2013. Burrow-dwelling ecosystem engineers provide thermal refugia throughout the landscape. Animal Conservation. Available at: