Durham University: Climate change and wildlife conservation across the Americas

A continental-scale network of conservation sites is likely to remain effective under future climate change scenarios, despite a predicted shift in key species distributions.

A new study, led by Professor Stephen Willis in our Department of Biosciences, investigates the impacts of potential climate change scenarios on the network of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) across the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

The research was carried out in collaboration with Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society.

Birds across borders

IBAs are sites identified as being internationally important for the conservation of bird populations, with over 13,000 sites identified across 200 countries in the last 40 years. Many are covered by formal protected areas, while others are conserved by community-managed reserves or indigenous lands.

Two of the responses of species to recent climate change events are changes in range and abundance, leading to a global reshuffling of populations.

Range changes may cause species to disappear from areas they occupy, whilst providing them with opportunities to colonise new sites. This redistribution could affect the ability of international site networks (including protected areas) to conserve species.

Therefore, identifying which sites will continue to provide suitable conditions and which are likely to become unsuitable is important for effective conservation planning as our planet continues to warm.

Climate change modelling for conservation

Estimating the impact of climate change on species’ distributions, and the consequences for networks of sites identified to conserve them, can help to inform conservation strategies to ensure that these networks remain effective.

The research modelled the effects of different scenarios of climate change on the wider network.

It determined that, for 73 percent of the 939 species of conservation concern, more than half of the IBAs in which they currently occur were projected to remain climatically suitable and, for 90 per cent of species, at least a quarter of sites remain suitable.

These results suggest that the network will remain robust under climate change. What is concerning however, is that seven percent of the species of conservation concern are projected to have no suitable climate in the IBAs currently identified for them.

The findings highlight how critical it is to effectively conserve the network of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas across the Americas to help safeguard wildlife in the region.

Despite projections of significant shifts in the distributions of individual species, the network as a whole will continue to play a key role in future conservation efforts.