Species on the move having a big impact

March 31, 2017 by Deborah Smith
Species on the move having a big impact
A ring-tailed possum. Credit: Andrew Mercer CC BY-SA 4.0

Changes in the distribution of land, marine and freshwater species as a result of climate change are affecting human wellbeing around the world, posing new health risks, economics threats and conflicts over resources.

The study, by an international team led by Associate Professor Gretta Pecl of the University of Tasmania, and including UNSW marine ecologist Dr Adriana Vergés, is published today in the journal Science.

In response to climate change, land-based species are moving towards the poles by 17 kilometres per decade, and marine species by 72 kilometres per decade, on average. Some terrestrial creatures, such as ring-tailed possums in Queensland, are also shifting up mountain slopes to escape warming lowlands, while some fish species are being driven deeper as the ocean warms.

"Human survival depends on other life on earth, so the redistribution of the planet's living organisms is a substantial challenge for people worldwide," says Associate Professor Pecl.

"Our global study demonstrates how these changes are affecting ecosystems and human health and culture in the process. While some species favour a warmer climate and are becoming more abundant, many others that humans exploit or interact with face depletion or extinction," she says.

Species on the move having a big impact
Rabbitfish in a feeding frenzy eating kelp. Credit: Adriana Vergés

Unlike the many species on the move, people are relatively immobile, largely restricted in where they can live by territorial borders, the researchers point out.

Dr Vergés' research in the Mediterranean Sea and along the eastern coast of Australia, shows how climate change is altering the distribution of tropical fish.

"The migration of tropical fish as a result of ocean warming poses a serious threat to the temperate areas they invade, because they can overgraze kelp forests and seagrass meadows," she says.

"Increases in the number of plant-eating tropical fish can profoundly alter ecosystems and lead to barren reefs, affecting biodiversity including other fish, abalone and lobsters, with significant economic and management impacts."

Species on the move having a big impact
A coffee plant. Credit: James Gagen CC BY-SA 2.0

These shifts in the range of species need to be taken into account in the formulation of conservation goals, policies and management actions at local to international levels, the researchers conclude.

"While traditional conservation aims to conserve and retain historical conditions, new management approaches will need to acknowledge the inevitability of species moving beyond their traditional ranges and novel ecosystems emerging," they write.

"Consideration of the effects of biodiversity redistribution is critical, yet lacking in most mitigation and adaptation strategies, including the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals."

The study highlights changes including:

  • Resources: fish, forests, and crops are at risk as their environments change, with the principal coffee growing regions expected to shift, and valuable timber species such as Norway spruce in Europe making way for less valuable warm climate species such as Mediterranean oak forest vegetation;
  • Industries: tourism and recreational fishing are jeopardised as corals die, jellyfish infest waters used for recreation, and urchins destroy fish habitats in kelp forests;
  • Conflict: tensions are emerging as species move between economic zones, as with the "mackerel wars" between Iceland and countries competing for mackerel quotas, or due to disputes over competing land uses;
  • Health: threats such as malaria are becoming more prevalent as rising temperatures allow the poleward spread of mosquitos into regions where people have not had prior exposure;
  • Indigenous culture: changes in distribution of fish and reindeer are impacting food security and traditional knowledge systems of Arctic peoples.
Species on the move having a big impact
A sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii). Credit: Peter Southwood CC BY-SA 3.0

In Australia, there was been a shift to higher ground by 13 bird and four ringtail possum species as a result of climate warming in the wet tropics. A southward shift by the sea urchin Centrostephanus rodgersii into Tasmania due to warming waters has led to overgrazing of kelp forests, affecting the regional lobster and abalone fisheries.

Australia has also already witnessed the extinction of the first mammal due to climate change, with the disappearance of the Bramble Cay melomys, also known as the mosaic-tailed rat, in the Torres Strait.

The study of climate-driven changes in species distributions is a relatively new field of science. The inaugural major international Species on the Move conference was held in Hobart in February 2016, with a follow-up conference likely to be held in 2019.

Explore further: Climate change is already causing widespread local extinction in plant and animal species

More information: Gretta T. Pecl et al. Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: Impacts on ecosystems and human well-being, Science (2017). DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9214

Related Stories

Climate change 'forcing species to move'

February 10, 2016

Warming temperatures are causing about half of the world's plants and animals to move location, an international conference in Australia heard Wednesday, with every major type of species affected.

Warmer climate threatening to northern birds

December 20, 2016

Will northern birds such as the Siberian jay and the red-flanked bluetail be gone in 50 years? There is a huge risk since a deteriorating climate for breeding is imminent. Another six species are also under threat and will ...

Human activities trigger change in marine ecosystems

April 15, 2016

Marine ecosystems are constantly subject to anthropogenic and environmental factors that cause them to change. From fishing and pollution, to climate change and invasions of non-native species, these factors have existed ...

Marine life spawns sooner as oceans warm

August 6, 2013

Warming oceans are impacting the breeding patterns and habitat of marine life, effectively re-arranging the broader marine landscape as species adjust to a changing climate, according to a three-year international study published ...

Recommended for you

Molecular microscopy illuminates molecular motor motion

July 25, 2017

A toddler running sometimes loses footing because both feet come off the ground at the same time. Kinesin motors that move materials around in cells have the same problem, which limits how fast they can traverse a microtubule ...

Discovery of why emus are grounded takes flight

July 25, 2017

Researchers from Monash University's Biomedicine Discovery Institute have helped solve the mystery of how emus became flightless, identifying a gene involved in the development and evolution of bird wings.

Breaking boundaries in our DNA

July 25, 2017

Our bodies are composed of trillions of cells, each with its own job. Cells in our stomach help digest our food, while cells in our eyes detect light, and our immune cells kill off bugs. To be able to perform these specific ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.