Native Animal Welfare

Move it or lose it

Saving species in a changing climate

Humans will need to physically relocate many species to ensure their survival in the face of climate change, University of Queensland-led research recommends.

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences researcher Dr Nathalie Butt said that conservationists must seriously consider expanding their species translocation strategy to stop mass extinctions.

“One in six species could become extinct as a result of climate change,” Dr Butt said.

“And the impacts of climate change, such as increasing temperatures or rising sea levels, mean that some habitats are already becoming unsuitable for species.

“We know that at least 40 per cent of amphibian species, 30 per cent of reef-forming coral species, and a third of all marine mammal species are now threatened with extinction.

“Many species faced with climate change will not be able to adapt and survive in place – they simply won’t be able move to somewhere more suitable on their own because of physical barriers, like cities, or being on top of a mountain.

“If we’re going to protect as many species as possible, we’re going to have to intervene.”

One such species is the Mount Claro rock wallaby, endemic to Australia’s Great Dividing Range.

It’s just one of 26 species on the Range projected to lose its habitat due to increased temperatures.

“The Mount Claro rock-wallaby lives in high, cool areas,” Dr Butt said.

“A lot of its habitat is used by humans for forestry and agriculture, so it will be difficult for the wallaby to move across these landscapes to higher altitudes without help.

“Conservation managers need to actively get involved with these rescues, and soon.

“We can’t simply wait until their habitat is lost.

“A small rodent once found in northern Queensland called the Bramble Cay melomys became the first documented climate change extinction due to rising sea levels.”

Griffith University’s Dr Alienor Chauvenet said the research team was advocating for conservationists and policy-makers to reconsider their strategies to prevent more climate extinctions.

“While hundreds of articles mention species translocation and assisted migration as tools to adapt to climate change, it is rarely practiced,” Dr Chauvenet said.

“Most actions are designed to keep species in their current native locations, with protections applied to their reserves, habitat restorations, tree and vegetation plantings.

“While this is effective and appropriate in many instances, there are plenty of instances where this kind of strategy alone will lead to extinct species.

“There are many barriers to this thinking in the conservation community, such as the risk of introducing an invasive species, socio-political pushback, getting the timing wrong and a lack of understanding.

“We’re advocating for assisted migrations at small scales, translocating species with little invasion risk, adopting robust monitoring protocols that trigger an active response, and promoting political and public support.

“If we can change how conservationists approach translocation of species, we might be able to seriously increase how many animals can survive a climate catastrophe.”

The research has been published in Conservation Biology (DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13643).