Climate change is nothing new in Earth’s more than 4 billion-year history. In response to the different living conditions that shaped the planet’s characteristics, species migrated and adapted to survive. However, climate transformations driven by the burning of fossil fuels, and caused by the actions of humanity, are happening much faster than in the past.
A new study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, has analyzed how the current rate of global warming affects the ability of species to adapt and what can be done to allow them to adapt. According to professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and senior author of the paper, Erika Zavaleta, there is a mismatch between where species are now and where the habitat and conditions suitable for them are moving.
“We need to think about where suitable habitats for different ecological communities will be in the future and how they can get there,” said Zavaleta. According to the article, the climatic conditions to which species have adapted are changing as the planet warms, leaving plants, animals and entire ecosystems in danger of being trapped in places where they can no longer survive.
“Things are changing and we need to help the adaptive responses of the natural world if we don’t want to lose both species and the amenities they provide to people. We depend on natural ecosystems, and helping them adapt is not separate from helping people and communities adapt to climate change,” she said.
Among the strategies identified by the authors, long-standing conservation measures, such as protecting and restoring ecosystems and increasing their connectivity, are extremely important. To address climate-specific challenges, three new strategies have received increasing attention in recent years: climate change refuges, assisted migration, and protection of climate-adaptive genetics.
As an example, there is the case of California oaks. “If you think of a valley oak, with seeds that are only transported a short distance by birds and that are only viable in the year they fall, you can have connectivity between the trees, but they won’t move in the same rate at which the environment is drying out. This is happening in parts of their range,” Zavaleta explained. “So, do we watch them until they disappear or do we keep them like seedlings in botanical gardens? And what do we need to learn now about how to get them back into the landscape where they can survive?”
Identifying and protecting areas that could serve as a refuge for species threatened by climate change fits within the traditional framework of biodiversity conservation. The creation of these spaces may include efforts to restore habitats, such as the recovery of degraded areas.
Assisted migration includes “assisted gene flow,” which involves moving organisms between populations within a species’ existing range to preserve genetic diversity as well as moving species beyond their historical range. This type of direct intervention is also a target of criticism. Concerns include potential impacts on other organisms after translocation, as well as the possibility of harming the target population if individuals do poorly in the new location.
Regarding the protection of genetic diversity, there is a special concern to protect the variants that can better adapt to hotter and drier conditions, which are the conditions most likely to prevail in the future, to ensure the maintenance of genetic resources that can favor the resilience to climate change.
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