Life history and spatial traits predict extinction risk due to climate change

There is an urgent need to develop effective vulnerability assessments for evaluating the conservation status of species in a changing climate1. Several new assessment approaches have been proposed for evaluating the vulnerability of species to climate change2, 3, 4, 5 based on the expectation that established assessments such as the IUCN Red List6 need revising or superseding in light of the threat that climate change brings. However, although previous studies have identified ecological and life history attributes that characterize declining species or those listed as threatened7, 8, 9, no study so far has undertaken a quantitative analysis of the attributes that cause species to be at high risk of extinction specifically due to climate change. We developed a simulation approach based on generic life history types to show here that extinction risk due to climate change can be predicted using a mixture of spatial and demographic variables that can be measured in the present day without the need for complex forecasting models. Most of the variables we found to be important for predicting extinction risk, including occupied area and population size, are already used in species conservation assessments, indicating that present systems may be better able to identify species vulnerable to climate change than previously thought. Therefore, although climate change brings many new conservation challenges, we find that it may not be fundamentally different from other threats in terms of assessing extinction risks.

Identifying refugia from climate change

This article highlights how the loose definition of the term ‘refugia’ has led to discrepancies in methods used to assess the vulnerability of species to the current trend of rising global temperatures. The term ‘refugia’ is commonly used without distinguishing between macrorefugia and microrefugia, ex situ refugia and in situ refugia, glacial and interglacial refugia or refugia based on habitat stability and refugia based on climatic stability. It is not always clear which definition is being used, and this makes it difficult to assess the appropriateness of the methods employed. For example, it is crucial to develop accurate fine-scale climate grids when identifying microrefugia, but coarse-scale macroclimate might be adequate for determining macrorefugia. Similarly, identifying in situ refugia might be more appropriate for species with poor dispersal ability but this may overestimate the extinction risk for good dispersers. More care needs to be taken to properly define the context when referring to refugia from climate change so that the validity of methods and the conservation significance of refugia can be assessed.

Climate change and the migration capacity of species

In a recent paper, McLachlan et al. presented evidence that migration rates of two tree species at the end of the last glacial (c. 10-20 thousand years ago) were much slower than was previously thought. These results provide an important insight for climate-change impacts studies and suggest that the ability of species to track future climate change is limited. However, the detection of late-glacial refugia close to modern range limits also implies that some of our most catastrophic projections might be overstated.