Predicting and Preventing Extinctions due to Climate Change: Recent Research at Stony Brook University

Human-caused global climate change is expected to have major impacts on earth's biodiversity, and may cause many species to become extinct in the coming decades and centuries.  Conservation biologists are developing approaches to prevent climate-related species extinctions.  These include assisted migration (moving species to areas that have become climatically more suitable) and protecting habitat to connect existing protected areas (such as national parks), so that species can move naturally to more suitable areas.  In addition, the effects of climate change on a species can be decreased by eliminating or reducing other human impacts, such as habitat loss and poaching, that threaten that species.  The effectiveness of these conservation approaches will depend on how accurately we can determine which species might go extinct due to climate change, and how soon we can make this determination.  In other words, a critical question is how long a warning time conservationist will have to save imperiled species.  If we determine that a species is threatened with extinction only 10 or 20 years before it would go extinct, that might not be enough time to save that species.

To address these questions, Re┼čit Akçakaya (a professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University) and his research group are developing and testing methods for identifying species vulnerable to extinction because of anthropogenic climate change.  Akçakaya and his collaborators have found that climate change causes high, but predictable, extinction risks. In a recent study, they tested the performance of the IUCN Red List system, the most commonly used method for identifying species threatened with extinction.  The IUCN Red List system was developed in the early 1990s before scientist knew much about the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.  Still, Akçakaya and his collaborators showed that the Red List system would provide several decades of warning time for species that might go extinct because of climate change.  Crucially, they also found that conservation actions must begin as soon as a species is listed at the lowest threat category.  This is because the results suggested that about half of vulnerable species may go extinct within 20 years of being listed at the highest threat category (defined as "Critically Endangered"), whereas only about 1% would do so within 20 years of being listed at the lowest threat category (defined as "Vulnerable").  In another study, Akçakaya and collaborators evaluated a conservation plan that was developed to save the Iberian Lynx, the most threatened cat species in the world.  They found that the plan will be ineffective unless it is modified to take into account the effects of climate change on the species, as well as on its primary prey species, the European Rabbit.  Using models that simulate the effects of climate on these two species, as well as the predator-prey interaction between them, they came up with an alternative conservation plan that has the potential to effect the recovery of the Iberian Lynx.