Habitat Loss Gaining Momentum

The forces of climate change are redefining what it means for a species to be endangered, according to a new study in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

The wide-ranging study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found as many as 83 percent of birds, 66 percent of amphibians and 70 percent of corals are highly susceptible to the effects of climate change, yet not currently classified as threatened with extinction under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Sumatra tiger deforestation

“Looking into the future is always an uncertain business, so we need a variety of methods to assess the risks we face,” said study co-author Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “This new method perfectly complements the more conventional ones used to date. Where various methods give the same frightening results, then we really need to pay attention and take steps to avoid them.”

The new assessment method draws on the work of over 100 scientists performed over a period of five years. The international research team focused on the distinctive biological and ecological characteristics of bird, amphibian and coral species with respect to climate change sensitivity or adaptability. This approach differs from prevailing methods that examine species vulnerability based on the degree of climate change it is expected to experience.

“The findings revealed some alarming surprises,” said co-author Wendy Foden, who worked on the study while she was with the IUCN Global Species Program. “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.”

“Clearly, if we simply carry on with conservation as usual, without taking climate change into account, we’ll fail to help many of the species and areas that need it most,” she added.

According to the study, almost 9 percent of all birds, 15 percent of all amphibians and 9 percent of all corals are both highly vulnerable to climate change and already threatened with extinction due to human activities. The authors added that these species need urgent conservation attention.

“As well as having a far clearer picture of which birds, amphibians and corals are most at risk from climate change, we now also know the biological characteristics that create their climate change ‘weak points’,” said co-author Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of the IUCN Global Species Program. “This gives us an enormous advantage in meeting their conservation needs.”

The study also presented a global map of vulnerability to climate change for the assessed species groups. The map showed the Amazon holds high concentrations of some of the most vulnerable bird and amphibian species, while the Coral Triangle near Indonesia contains most of the climate-change vulnerable corals.

deforestation and climate change

The new IUCN approach has already been used to examine the Albertine Rift region of Central and East Africa with respect to species that are particularly important to humans. Researchers found 33 plants, 19 species of freshwater fish and 24 mammals used primarily as a source of food that are likely to decline due to climate change.

“The study has shown that people in the region rely heavily on wild species for their livelihoods, and that this will undoubtedly be disrupted by climate change,” said Jamie Carr of IUCN Global Species Program and lead author of the Albertine Rift study. “This is particularly important for the poorest and most marginalized communities who rely most directly on wild species to meet their basic needs.”

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