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Understanding the role of intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of loss in species niches, to inform conservation planning under climate change

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PROTECTNICHE (Understanding the role of intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of loss in species niches, to inform conservation planning under climate change)

Reporting period: 2019-02-01 to 2021-01-31

The extinction of species is the most alarming consequence of global biodiversity decline, with potential dramatic effects on our economy and well-being. The current rate of climate change is predicted to further increase extinction risk, hence there is urgent need to anticipate species decline rather than reacting to it. The breadth of a species’ niche - the set of environmental conditions in which the species can persist - is the key ecological trait that allows adaptation to environmental change, but it is often ignored in conservation applications. This project aimed at defining the conditions under which species’ adaptive potential will be maintained or compromised under global change. The goal of the PROTECTNICHE project is to disentangle the impacts of humans, climate change, and life history on the climatic niches of terrestrial mammals to understand future risk from climate change. The project is divided into two objectives: i) Attribute the global change in past species climatic niches to intrinsic and extrinsic drivers; ii) Define a measure of vulnerability to climate change for each species, to define risk under alternative future scenarios. This is a research area of primary interest in Europe, given the EC has recognised that business opportunities from investing in biodiversity conservation could be worth US$ 2-6 trillion by 2050. This is also of direct relevance for European commitments towards sustainable development. European Member States are committed to respect the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The results of the PROTECTNICHE project will reinforce the role of Europe as a research innovator on planetary sustainability.

The project unveiled tipping points of climatic instability (when <70% of the original climatic space was lost) beyond which species are very likely to undergo niche shrink. It also showed the role of certain biological characteristics, such as large body size, long gestation time, and carnivorous diet, in reducing species’ ability to cope with changing climate. This knowledge is essential to evaluate the ecological effects of future climatic scenarios, as well as the ecological significance of international policy commitments towards climate change mitigation.
The work performed during project’s activities include:

- Retrieved the past and present geographic distribution of ca. 600 species of terrestrial mammals;
- Collected life-history and ecological traits of the species, that are potentially correlated to change in their realised climatic niches;
- Measured anthropogenic drivers that are potentially correlated to change in species’ realised climatic niches;
- Measured the overall climatic stability within species past ranges, to separate the effect of regional climate change from that of other drivers;
- Measured change in the realised climatic niches of species;
- Run a model to predict the probability of species to undergo different types of niche change, based on species life-history, human pressure, and overall climatic stability;
- Evaluated the model’s performance;
- Represented the modelled relationship between key model’s predictors and change in species niche;
- Defined the relationship between climatic instability and probability of niche erosion;
- Identified a tipping point in the level of climatic instability beyond which niche erosion is substantially higher;
- Identified a set of alternative future climatic scenarios for the year 2050 that will be compared to present-day climate;
- Estimated the levels of future climatic instability for terrestrial mammal species under alternative scenarios; [IN PROGRESS]

The completion of the first project’s Work Package has produced a global-scale estimate of how mammal species’ climatic niches have changed over time, and which factors have determined such changes. The work undertaken as part of the second project Work Package has resulted in the definition of a very promising policy storyline, where species’ sensitivity to climate change has been measured with respect to the loss in their climatic niche breadth. The dissemination of these results included presentations at international scientific conferences, participation in international biodiversity policy meetings, and the preparation of scientific articles.
As part of the first Work Package, we found half of the species we analysed have faced a shrinkage in their realised climatic niche, in response to human alteration of their distribution, global climatic change, and life history. Climatic factors were the strongest correlates of species niche change, followed by anthropogenic pressure and species’ life history. The probability of species to face niche erosion was high at intermediate levels of climatic stability, and very high at low levels of stability. At the same time, species with large body size, long gestation time, and carnivorous diet were more likely to undergo niche erosion. Higher levels of historical land-use change and current human population density were also positively associated with niche erosion. These results points towards the ability of species to tolerate (or even take advantage of) low levels of climatic change, and inability to tolerate intermediate or high levels of change, especially when combined with other human pressure and certain biological traits that make species more susceptible to such pressures. As part of the second Work Package, we identified tipping points of climatic instability beyond which species become more likely to undergoing niche shrink. This is an essential information to evaluate the ecological effects of future climatic scenarios, as well as the ecological significance of international climate commitments such as the Paris Agreement. The completion of results for the second Work Package will have direct relevance for measuring the ecological relevance of global climate mitigation commitments.

Aside from their scientific value, the project’s results contribute to the policy, and societal understanding of the ecological implications of climate change. The Research Fellow was invited to contribute a section about the expected impacts of climate change on biodiversity for the upcoming Living Planer Report of WWF international. The Fellow was also invited to participate in international meetings and workshops to discuss the Post-2020 strategy of the Convention of Biological Diversity. Project’s results, and overall goal, were also shared during communication events organised by Sapienza University and Frascati Scienza during the Climate Strike for Future and the European Researchers’ Night. European States are committed to delivering on the Paris Agreement and the broader UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the EU has agreed that by 2020 3% of each Member States’ GDP is invested in research. The results of this project can support these commitments, by unveiling the ecological risk associated with global climate change.
Change in the climatic niches of four example mammal species.