News Release

IUCN Red List warns about climate change extinctions

06 October 2014
The Critically Endangered Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) was one of 36 species modeled to assess warning times for species extinctions under climate change
Photo: Jonathan Mays

A new study shows that The IUCN Red List would provide several decades of warning time for species that might go extinct because of climate change.

As we are only just beginning to understand how climate change threatens biodiversity, some scientists believe that current risk assessment protocols, such as The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, will fail to identify many species threatened by climate change. However, an international team of researchers argue that current assessment methods are capable of detecting such species.

"There are going to be a lot of challenges for conservation under climate change but I think what we found here is actually positive," says Dr Jessica Stanton, lead author of the study and researcher at the US Geological Survey. "Our findings show that we already have some of the tools we are going to need for identifying species vulnerable to climate change."

This is the first study to quantitatively test the ability of any ‘warning system’ for identifying species threatened by climate change. To test the performance of The IUCN Red List, the research team used computer models to project the future abundance of 36 species of amphibians and reptiles endemic to North America under a ‘business-as-usual’ climate change scenario. Next, the team performed ‘virtual’ Red List assessments following the IUCN guidelines to determine the Red List status of each species throughout the simulation.

“Although the study shows that the time between when a species is identified as threatened and when it goes extinct (without any conservation action) is on average over 60 years, the warning time can be as short as 20 years for many species, especially if information about their populations is limited,” says Dr Resit Akçakaya, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Standards and Petitions Sub-Committee and Professor at Stony Brook University. "That may not be enough time for saving a species because our ability to prevent extinctions depends on how fast conservation actions can lead to the recovery of species.”

Another important finding of the study is the need to initiate conservation action as soon as a species is listed at the lowest threatened category, which is ‘Vulnerable’. After a species is listed at the highest threat level, ‘Critically Endangered’, the warning time is predicted to be shorter than 20 years for most species. "This is because species at the highest threat level have declined to very low levels or exist in very small areas, and as a result they are already on the brink of extinction," says Dr Stanton.

Currently, there are 22,176 species listed as threatened (Vulnerable to Critically Endangered) on The IUCN Red List and of these, about 21% are classified as Critically Endangered.

"The bad news is that climate change will cause many extinctions unless species-specific conservation actions are taken,” says Dr Akçakaya. “But the good news is that the tools conservation organizations have been using to identify which species need the most urgent help, such as The IUCN Red List, also work when climate change is the main threat."

The study was published in Global Change Biology and was funded by NASA.

For more information, please contact:

Dr Resit Akçakaya

Dr Jessica Stanton

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