Current models used to predict climate change underestimate the potential for future extinctions by failing to account for the dog-eat-dog mentality of migrating animals looking for a sustainable environment, according to a new study.

"We have really sophisticated meteorological models for predicting climate change," says ecologist Mark Urban, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut and the study's lead author. "But in real life, animals move around, they compete, they parasitize each other and they eat each other. The majority of our predictions don't include these important interactions."

Urban created a mathematical model that takes into account the varying rates of migration and the different intensities of competition seen in ecological communities, hoping to predict the success of species at shifting to completely new habitats.

According to Urban, as species move in response to climate change, some can’t disperse fast enough to get to more suitable places before they die off, and if they do make it to better habitats, they may be outcompeted by the species that are already there, or the ones that got there first.

At particular risk are animals with small geographic ranges, specific habitat needs, and difficulty dispersing.

"When a species has a small range, it's more likely to be outcompeted by others," Urban says. "It's not about how fast you can move, but how fast you move relative to your competitors."

The study is published in the January 4 online edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.