Most studies predicting species’ fates due to global warming rely on models that assume species can survive only in the environmental conditions in which they currently live. But doing so ignores the possibility that species can adapt to a changing environment, said Ben Sheldon, an ornithologist at the University of Oxford and the senior author of the study, published Tuesday in PLOS Biology.

There are two main ways species can cope with a rising thermostat — by evolving or by being versatile. The former requires genetic changes in a short amount of time within a population. The latter, a concept biologists call phenotypic plasticity, involves adjusting to fit in, like a high school kid who can float in the nerd, jock and Goth crowds. For a bird, it means changing appearance or behavior to take advantage of a changing environment.  Sheldon and his team wanted to know which mechanism, if any, birds were using to adapt to climate change.

For more than 50 years, scientists had been monitoring birds called great tits in a woodland near Oxford. The famed ornithologist David Lack established the study site in an area called Wytham Woods, setting out nest boxes for the resident great tits and recording every aspect of the population’s dynamics.