A new study presents startling findings that rapid climate change may threaten many more species of plants and animals than previous measures have led us to believe.
The study, one of the biggest of its kind, found that only 6–9% of birds, 11–15% of amphibians, and 6–9% corals are currently listed as threatened with extinction, yet overall up to 41% of the world’s bird species, 29% of amphibians and 22% of corals are “highly climate change vulnerable.”
That’s a large and worrying disparity that, researchers say, may mean conservation efforts are out of step with actual extinction threats.
The ambitious study, published in the journal Plos One, was carried out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and uses a new method to assess climate change risk factors for animal and plant species.
Previously, conservation risk assessment has focused only on measuring the amount of change their overall habitat species are likely to experience. The IUCN study, drawing on the work of more than 100 scientists, instead looks at each species’ unique biological and ecological characteristics, and measures exposure risk against sensitivity to climate change and species adaptability.
For instance, the Amazonian Royal Flycatcher, a species of bird already facing the perils of habitat-loss due to deforestation, is under this new measure highly vulnerable to climate change.
Its habitat is predicted to undergo a high level of temperature change. The bird has specific habitat and temperature requirements and therefore will be very sensitive to this change. Due to the fact that the species is localized and does not move from area to area means it is unlikely to adapt well to these changes. This adds up to a less than rosy future for the bird that might have otherwise been missed under the previous assessment criteria.
As you can see, by assessing species in this manner, many more animals and plants could be seen as at risk even though they are not currently treated as threatened. The Amazon rainforest is among the regions the study found to be particularly high in climate change at-risk species, but it isn’t the only region.
Focusing solely on birds, large numbers of highly climate change vulnerable species were also predicted in Mesoamerica, Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Thailand, among other regions. Similarly, should temperatures rise, many more common corals off Indonesia would be highly vulnerable.
Among particular species, Emperor Penguins, the Little Owl and the Imitator Salamander could be classed as markedly climate change vulnerable, none of which have in the past been classed as in direct danger from climate change.
“The findings revealed some alarming surprises,” Wendy Foden, of the IUCN Global Species Program and leader of the study, told Wildlife Extra. “We hadn’t expected that so many species and areas that were not previously considered to be of concern would emerge as highly vulnerable to climate change.”
There are some important caveats to the research, chief among them that the data assessed suffered a number of limitations, but the overall thrust of the argument, that we may need to reconsider climate change threat if we are to ensure preservation of as many species as possible, is largely agreed upon.
Human encroachment, loss of habitat and invasive species all currently rank as more pressing causes of extinction than climate change, the researchers wrote in the study, but conservation priorities should be revised to account for emerging climate risks.
In turn, this data could be used to see where more designated protected wildlife areas might be needed so as to facilitate population management in the face of a rapidly altering climate.
The IUCN will now use these results to update its IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is held as a key measure of extinction risk, and this will be used to direct and properly deploy conservation plans in the future.
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