New study provides guidance on assessing species’ vulnerability to climate change

A study by the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Climate Change Specialist Group in collaboration with other international experts reviews different approaches for assessing the vulnerability of species to climate change and provides valuable guidance for conservation practitioners. The study found an imbalance in the coverage of different species groups and geographic areas, with the majority of studies focusing on birds, mammals, and plants in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Koala, one of the species most affected by climate change

“Climate change will be a major driver of biodiversity decline in the coming decades, and accurate predictions of species expected to be affected are essential for gaining time for conservation action -- the sooner we start, the wider the range of options we have,” says lead author Michela Pacifici of the Global Mammal Assessment Program at Sapienza University of Rome.

The authors reviewed a total of 97 studies on the vulnerability of species to climate change published between 1996 and 2014, revealing a bias in taxonomic coverage, scale of application and geographic area.

The majority of studies involved only three continents or subcontinents, with almost 33% of the studies focused on North America, 24% on Europe, and 14% on Australia. There is a severe shortage of studies in the most biodiverse tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Birds have been the most frequently studied taxon, followed by mammals and plants, while non-insect invertebrates such as arthropods, molluscs and sponges, were only seldom assessed. Only 4% of the studies evaluated species’ vulnerability at a global scale, while more than 60% of the assessments were developed at a local scale.

The authors identified areas containing high concentrations of climate change vulnerable species, including the Caribbean, the Amazon basin, Mesoamerica, eastern Europe through central and eastern Asia, the Mediterranean basin, the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the Congo basin, tropical West Africa and Madagascar.

"Increasing global warming, together with habitat loss, is predicted to severely affect biodiversity in many developing countries," says co-author Carlo Rondinini, coordinator of the Global Mammal Assessment Program at Sapienza University of Rome. "Therefore, it is essential to conduct studies and increase monitoring efforts in these data-deficient areas."

An additional shortcoming of previous studies is that they only focused on the direct impacts of climate change. The authors point out that indirect impacts within biological communities, as well as changes in human use of natural resources, will have substantial, complex, and often multiplicative impacts on species. The growing human population will itself be increasingly affected by climate change, with human adaptation responses likely to result in substantial negative impacts on biodiversity.

“The paper is a firm foundation for the development of guidelines for practitioners (currently in preparation), to help them select and use the most appropriate approaches to assess the vulnerability of species to climate change. This provides a vital component for developing strategies to help biodiversity adapt to climate change,” says co-author Wendy Foden, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Climate Change Specialist Group.

The paper, Assessing species vulnerability to climate change, is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Work area: 
Climate Change
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