Scientists: think more broadly to predict wildlife climate change survival

Scientists studying whether wildlife can adapt to climate change should focus on characteristics such as what they eat, how fast they breed and how well they survive in different habitats rather than simply on how far they can move.

This is what we concluded in a paper led by former post-doc in the group, Dr Alba Estrada, and published this week in the Trends in Ecology and Evolution. We are concerned that many analyses of climate change impacts largely ignore the species characteristics that could tell us the most when it comes to calculating the probability of how well species will be able to survive.

One of the main ways wildlife will survive climate change is to move to new areas when climate conditions become intolerable for them. Research addressing which species will be able to colonise new areas commonly focuses on how well an individual can move long distances. In this opinion piece we suggest a framework, based on existing evidence, that provides guidelines on other characteristics that might point more accurately to which species are likely to survive.

What’s surprising is that there are some characteristics that scientists usually ignore, but which turn out to be really important. For example how quickly plants and animals can reproduce, how well species are able to compete with other species for resources, and what kinds of food species can eat or habitat they can live in.

We were working on forecasts of how European plants, mammals, and birds might shift their ranges in response to climate change. There were hundreds of species characteristics that could be used to tell us which species might be able to colonise new habitats. We realised we needed to stand back and look at all the evidence that could be used to predict responses to environmental change. When we looked at a broader array of traits than simply how far an individual animal or seed can travel we found that forecasts differed.

For example, climate change will make large parts of Europe suitable for the European Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus citellus, in the future. But the squirrel’s traits suggest it might stay just where it currently lives in Eastern Europe: it can only live in grasslands that aren’t available everywhere.

On the other hand, species like the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) and Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) will likely move north into Norway and Finland, and the highest parts of the Scottish highlands, because they breed quickly, they live in lots of habitats, have a broad diet, and individuals can travel a long way.

Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) populations in the south of Europe will disappear (much of Spain, Italy, south of France, Balkans), and the species will decline unless it can reach the north (parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway). However, we think it’s unlikely to reach the north because it breeds slowly, and it can’t move very far.

Usefulness of Species Traits in Predicting Range Shifts by Alba Estrada, Ignacio Morales-Castilla, Paul Caplat, Regan Early is published in the March 2016 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution

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