Throughout history species have been able to survive vast changes in climate, transitioning through glacial cycles and adapting to the environment.

However, a new study from Indiana University suggests that, if rattlesnakes are any indication, the climate on Earth will change faster than the rate at which species can adapt over the next 90 years.

The study, led by Michelle Lawing, doctoral candidate in geological sciences and biology at IU Bloomington, focused on North American rattlesnakes and their ability to relocate in order to adapt to changing temperatures. Rattlesnakes are good indicators of climate change because they depend on the environment to regulate their body temperatures.

"We find that, over the next 90 years, at best these species' ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years," said Lawing. "This rate of change is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation."

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the mean annual temperature will increase at least 1.1 to as much as 6.4 degrees Celsius over the next 90 years, creating an environment in which snakes wouldn't be able to move fast enough to keep up with the change in suitable habitat.

Rattlesnake ranges have moved an average of only 2.3 meters a year over the past 320,000 years. With projected climate change in the next 90 years, the ranges would be displaced by a remarkable 430 meters to 2,400 meters a year.

Lawing combined information from climate cycle models, indicators of climate from the geological record, evolution of rattlesnake species and other data to develop “paleophylogeographic models" for rattlesnake ranges, enabling her to map the expansion and contraction of the ranges of North American rattlesnakes at 4,000-year intervals. Lawing then projected the models into the future.

Lawing notes that many organisms will be affected by climate change, and this study provides a model for examining what may happen with other species.

The study, "Pleistocene Climate, Phylogeny, and Climate Envelope Models: An Integrative Approach to Better Understand Species' Response to Climate Change," was published by the online science journal PLoS One.