Climate-related species extinction possibly less severe than predicted

Future climate-related species extinction could be less severe than predictions based only on the current trend of global warming. However, the researchers from the University of Bayreuth and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg do not give the all-clear.

Changes in climate that occur over short periods of time influence biodiversity. For a realistic assessment of these effects, it is necessary to also consider previous temperature trends going far back into Earth’s history.

The research team used palaeobiological and climate science models to investigate how a temperature trend over a long period of time and a subsequent short-term temperature change together affect species extinction. For this purpose, research data on eight different groups of marine and terrestrial animals were combined and analysed.

One of the key findings of the study was that the extent to which short-term temperature changes affect extinct risk depends largely on the context of geographic and climatic history. If a long-lasting cooling is intensified by a subsequent short-term cooling, the climate-related extinction risk of the studied genera increases by up to 40 percent. However, this risk decreases if a long-term cooling of the Earth, such as occurred 40 million years ago up to the industrial age, is followed by a short-term warming.

The researchers explain the effect they discovered by the fact that every species develops adaptations to certain climatic conditions in the course of its evolution. They retain these adaptations over a period of hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

A long-term cooling therefore moves the species further and further away from the living conditions that are favourable for them and increases the risk of extinction.  If a brief warming now follows, the habitat of the species will again approach the preferred climate.

“Further studies are still needed to apply the results of our now published work to climate change as we are currently experiencing it. However, it seems very possible that human-induced global warming that began with the industrial age does not threaten global biodiversity as much as some predictions assume,” explains Gregor Mathes M.Sc., first author of the study.  Their results can be found in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Image credit: Axel Munnecke

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