Future climate-related species extinction could be less severe than previously predicted

According to a new research paper published by the University of Bayreuth and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, future climate-related species extinction could be less severe than predictions based only on the current trend of global warming.

For a realistic assessment of the effects of climate change, it is necessary to consider previous temperature trends. Researchers from the University of Bayreuth and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg demonstrate in a paper, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, that climate-related species extinction could be less severe than recent predictions.

The research team led by Bayreuth ecologist Professor Manuel Steinbauer 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.

The researchers combined data on eight different groups of marine and terrestrial animals to be analysed. In total, these groups include around 3,200 genera and more than 46,000 species. One of the key findings of the study was that the extent to which short-term temperature changes affect species diversity 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%. 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.

Brief warming periods are essential to the survival of vulnerable species

The researchers explain that every species develops adaptations to certain climatic conditions in the course of its evolution. They retain these adaptations over a period of 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.

Gregor Mathes, first author of the study, who is currently writing a doctoral thesis in palaeobiology at the Universities of Bayreuth and Erlangen-Nuremberg, said: “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.”

Steinbauer adds: “In the next two years, we wish to investigate even more closely the extent to which current forecasts of climate-induced species loss should be adjusted given that they ignore the context of geographic and climatic history. In the current biodiversity crisis, climate change is only one of many causes of species extinction. We humans are intervening in nature so extensively that a large number of species are endangered or have already disappeared from our planet forever as a result.”

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