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Call to arms to avert climate change species losses

Media Release

9 September 2016

Call to arms to avert climate change species losses


A group of international scientists is calling for a coordinated global effort to help predict how climate change will affect species and to protect future biodiversity.

Changes in global temperatures are already having an impact on the diversity and distribution of living things worldwide. Some species may be able to adapt and survive these changes, while others may not. In New Zealand, climate change is particularly important as there are many rare and unique plants and animals, some of which are already under threat from invasive pests and habitat loss.

Using sophisticated mathematical models, scientists can forecast outcomes, but these models are only as good as the available data. The recent study, ‘Improving the forecast for biodiversity under climate change’ published in Science, describes six key types of biological information, including life history, physiology, genetic variation, species interactions, dispersal and evolution, that will help predict outcomes for individual species.

“New Zealand’s strong foundation in ecological research will help,” explains study co-author Dr William Godsoe, a Lincoln University lecturer and investigator in the Bio-Protection Research Centre. “One of our hopes is to build on these strengths and highlight new opportunities to improve predictions by explicitly considering evolution, interactions among species, and dispersal.” This will aid the development of strategies to manage impacts on species and ecosystems before they become critical.

“Right now, we’re treating a mouse the same way as an elephant or a fish or a tree. Yet we know that those are all very different organisms and they are going to respond to their environment in different ways,” says the study’s lead author Associate Professor Mark Urban from the University of Connecticut.

The team have challenged the research community to capture this information. “We need to pull on our boots, grab our binoculars, and go back into the field to gather these key bits of information if we are going to make realistic predictions,” says Associate Professor Urban.

With more than 8.7 million species worldwide, gathering the necessary biological information to improve predictions is a daunting task. Even a sampling of key species would be beneficial, the scientists say, as the more sophisticated models will allow them to extrapolate their predictions and apply them to species with similar traits.
“Our biggest challenge is pinpointing which species to concentrate on and which regions we need to allocate resources,” says Associate Professor Urban, who, through an earlier study in Science, predicted that as many as one in six species internationally could be wiped out by climate change.

In New Zealand, the Department of Conservation has identified several threatened species with limited distributions and low genetic variation that are likely to be affected by climate change, including iconic species, such as tuatara, little spotted kiwi, black robin, takahē, black-eyed gecko and Archey’s frog. The tuatara is of particular concern because the sex of their offspring is determined by temperature, with fewer females being produced at higher temperatures.

The researchers are calling for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to spearhead a global campaign to capture the information needed, and are also encouraging conservation strategies to support biodiversity such as maintaining dispersal corridors, and preserving existing natural habitats and genetic diversity.

Ends

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