EXTINCTIONS: Re-evaluating the extinction risk – University of Copenhagen

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EXTINCTIONS: Re-evaluating the extinction risk.

In 2012 a ‘Sapere Aude' award enabled the initiation of a large research project that aimed to use state of the art paleaecological and palaeocliomatic data to assess the future exposure of biological diversity to climate change. The award from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation was received by Associate Professor David Nogués-Bravo, Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, University of Copenhagen.

The background

Understanding future global changes impacts in biodiversity is a key scientific challenge nowadays. Thousands of species and ecosystems are highly exposed to climate change and biodiversity responses in terms of shifts of their geographical distribution have been already recorded during the 20th century. Recent estimations show that the distributions of species have recently shifted to higher elevations at a median rate of 11.0 meters per decade, and to higher latitudes at a median rate of 16.9 kilometers per decade. Projections for the 21st century also suggest that climate change would dramatically increase those changes and that many species might not migrate with the same speed that climate is changing or to physiologically adapt to climatic changes. Therefore they would be highly exposed to extinctions.

The project

The most widely used tool to forecast species responses to climate change is Species Distribution Models, SDMs Results about futures responses of biodiversity to climate change based on SDMs have been highly influential in the last decade. The trickiest problem of ecological modeling studies when forecasting future responses of biodiversity to climate change is the lack of truly independent validations. Epistemologically, we cannot assess the usefulness of predictive techniques to accurately predict future responses of biodiversity to climate change because we cannot “travel” to the future. Therefore, the main theoretical assumptions and methodological approaches behind models to predict future biodiversity responses to climate change remain untested. What to do? We cannot “travel” to the future but we can “travel” to the past. My proposal aims at testing the usefulness of Species Distribution Models, both in conceptual and analytical aspects, to better forecast future impacts of global change. Specifically, I aim at independently testing the ability of SDMs to predict well-recorded environmental dynamics which occurred during the last 50,000 years (Late Quaternary) and building a new generation of projections on climate change impacts in biodiversity using palaeo-information.

The approach

We will use the Late Quaternary as the playground to independently test the ability of SDMs to model biodiversity responses to climate change. The late Quaternary is maybe the best studied past period in terms of species extinctions and biodiversity dynamics under climate change. Between 50,000 and 3,000 years before present (BP) 65% of mammal genera weighing over 44 kg went extinct, together with a lower proportion of small mammals. But extinctions were not the only consequence of global change impacts (climate and humans). During the Late Quaternary also occurred losses of genetic diversity, changes in the distribution of species and a re-organization of ecological communities. In other words, the Late Quaternary is maybe the best natural experiment to understand how climate change and other pressure factors affect biodiversity. Gaining lessons from the past both in conceptual and methodological aspects to better forecast future impacts of global change will provide better estimates of future responses of species to climate change and allow the development of better conservation strategies. To fulfill this objective my proposal has a strong emphasis in international, cross-disciplinary collaborations, as a matter to better understand and predict climate change impacts in biodiversity (see a Perspective piece in Science that I was invited to write recently: Nogués-Bravo and Rahbek 2011).

The interdisciplinary nature of EXTINCTIONs and its team

This proposal is placed at the intersection between macroecology, climatology, evolutionary biology and paleoecology. EXTINCTIONs will seek to produce novel results at the frontiers between Biology and Earth Sciences. 

Expected results

EXTINCTIONs seeks to significantly move forward the state-of-the-art in biodiversity dynamics under climate change, offering a novel research framework and ground-breaking results. It will provide also a neat framework to improve conceptually and methodologically current approaches to forecast future biodiversity dynamics under global change. EXTINCTIONs has also a strong commitment to spread the lessons gained during the five years of the grant in relation to conservation issues under climate change and biodiversity policies to governmental and non-governmental agencies, including the International Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.