Photo of dragonflies over water.

New CU Denver Study Shows that a Key Factor in Species Survival will be Mating in Extreme Weather 

April 8, 2024

Species that survive climate change impacts will not only have to adapt to weather they aren’t used to, but their ability to properly “get busy,” or reproduce, in that environment will be critical to their continued survival. 

CU Denver Integrative Biology Assistant Professor Michael Moore details his research and its findings in the “An evolutionary innovation for mating facilitates ecological niche expansion and buffers species against climate change,” which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. 

“Species require special traits to mate in hot and stressful environments, and species without these mating traits are especially vulnerable to climate change,” Moore said. “Biologists have long understood that species can only start using new habitats after they evolve novel traits that help them grow and survive there. What our study shows is that where species exist now, and where they might be able to persist in the future, is also determined by whether or not they have traits that help them mate in those new climates.” 

The study looked at an unusual hydrophobic UV-reflective wax (also known as “pruinescence”) that male dragonflies produce. The wax prevents males from overheating and drying out when they try to attract mates at sunlit ponds. Moore and his co-authors showed that species without this wax are unable to use warmer and drier parts of their current habitat for mating, and they are also prevented from migrating into warmer and drier parts of North America overall. 

“Climate change doesn’t seem to be affecting the species that possess this wax that allows males to mate in warmer and drier habitats. By contrast, the species that lack the wax are being driven to extinction by climate change at an alarming rate,” Moore said. “These results suggest that where a species can exist is actually just as dependent on whether it is physiologically capable of mating there as whether it can survive there.”  

The article’s co-authors are also members of the Lynx community: Sarah E. Nalley, a doctoral candidate, and Dalal Hamadah, an undergraduate student studying integrative biology. They are both working in Moore’s lab. 

After completing her undergraduate degree at CU Boulder, Nalley wanted to continue her educational journey and sought a lab where she could research the impacts of wildfire on animal ecology and evolution. She found the right combination at CU Denver. And her interest was only amplified after she lost her home in the Marshall Fire, which started on Dec. 30, 2021, and burned more than 6,000 acres in Boulder County. 

“Conducting wildlife evolutionary ecology research and seeing the product of our work in a journal like PNAS is a dream come true,” Nalley said. “I am so thankful to CU Denver and Dr. Moore for providing me with the opportunity to explore and contribute to our understanding of the natural world.”