Climate-Related Local Extinctions Are Already Widespread among Plant and Animal Species

December 20, 2016

John J. Wiens, PLOS, published: December 8, 2016,

Climate change is an important threat to the world’s plant and animal species, including species on which humans depend. However, predicting how species will respond to future climate change is very difficult. In this study, I analyze the extinctions caused by the climate change that has already occurred. Numerous studies find that species are shifting their geographic ranges in response to climate change, typically moving to higher elevations and latitudes. These studies also contain valuable data on local extinctions, as they document the loss of populations at the “warm edge” of species’ ranges (lower elevations and latitudes). Here, I use these data to show that recent local extinctions related to climate change have already occurred in hundreds of species around the world. Specifically, among 976 species surveyed, local extinctions occurred in 47%. These extinctions are common across climatic zones, habitats, and groups of organisms but are especially common in tropical regions (which contain most of Earth’s species), in animals (relative to plants), and in freshwater habitats. In summary, this study reveals local extinctions in hundreds of species related to the limited global warming that has already occurred. These extinctions will almost certainly increase as global climate continues to warm in the coming decades.

Current climate change may be a major threat to global biodiversity, but the extent of species loss will depend on the details of how species respond to changing climates. For example, if most species can undergo rapid change in their climatic niches, then extinctions may be limited. Numerous studies have now documented shifts in the geographic ranges of species that were inferred to be related to climate change, especially shifts towards higher mean elevations and latitudes. Many of these studies contain valuable data on extinctions of local populations that have not yet been thoroughly explored. Specifically, overall range shifts can include range contractions at the “warm edges” of species’ ranges (i.e., lower latitudes and elevations), contractions which occur through local extinctions. Here, data on climate-related range shifts were used to test the frequency of local extinctions related to recent climate change. The results show that climate-related local extinctions have already occurred in hundreds of species, including 47% of the 976 species surveyed. This frequency of local extinctions was broadly similar across climatic zones, clades, and habitats but was significantly higher in tropical species than in temperate species (55% versus 39%), in animals than in plants (50% versus 39%), and in freshwater habitats relative to terrestrial and marine habitats (74% versus 46% versus 51%). Overall, these results suggest that local extinctions related to climate change are already widespread, even though levels of climate change so far are modest relative to those predicted in the next 100 years. These extinctions will presumably become much more prevalent as global warming increases further by roughly 2-fold to 5-fold over the coming decades.