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Climate change causes high, but predictable, extinction risks


Judging the effects of climate change on extinction may be easier than previously thought, according to a paper published today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Although widely used assessments of threatened species, such as the IUCN Red List, were not developed with the effects of climate change in mind, a study of 36 amphibian and reptile species endemic to the US has concluded that climate change may not be fundamentally different from other extinction threats in terms of identifying species in danger of extinction.

The new study, funded by NASA and led by Richard Pearson of UCL and, formerly, the American Museum of Natural History, and by Resit Akçakaya of Stony Brook University in New York, identified factors that predispose species to high extinction risk due to climate change. By looking at pre-existing information on species of salamanders, turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards, the team hoped to create a blueprint for judging extinction risk in other species around the world.

Dr Richard Pearson (UCL Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research) said: "Surprisingly, we found that most important factors – such as having a small range or low population size – are already used in conservation assessments. These new results indicate that current systems may be better able to identify species vulnerability to climate change than previously thought."

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Through quantitative analysis the team found that across the reptiles and amphibians studied there was a 28% overall chance of extinction by 2100. In contrast, the risk of extinction without climate change was calculated to be less than 1%, suggesting that climate change will cause a dramatic increase in extinction risk for these taxonomic groups over the next century.

Dr Resit Akçakaya of Stony Brook University said: "The bad news is that climate change will cause many extinctions unless species-specific conservation actions are taken; but the good news is that the methods conservation organisations have been using to identify which species need the most urgent help also work when climate change is the main threat."

The factors identified in this study as predisposing species to high extinction risk due to climate change suggest that conservation actions should focus on species that occupy a small or declining area, have small population size, or have synchronized population fluctuations. The methodology used in this study offers great potential for adaption to additional taxonomic groups and geographical areas, helping to develop effective measures to conserve biodiversity over the coming century.

Unlike most previous studies, which predicted future extinction risks based only on projected contraction of areas with suitable climate for each species, the present study estimated extinction risk as the probability of the population size falling to zero by the year 2100. To do this, the authors used a new methodology that included modelling demographic processes such as reproduction, survival, and dispersal.

The approach was not designed to make specific predictions for each individual species; instead, the methods allowed the authors to draw conclusions beyond the limited set of species for which data were available. The result is new understanding of the factors that make some species more at risk due to the changing temperature and rainfall patterns that are expected over the coming century.

Dr Pearson added: "Our analysis will hopefully be able to help create better guidelines that account for the effects of climate change in assessing extinction risk."

Notes to editors

1. For more information or to speak to Dr Richard Pearson, please contact Siobhan Pipa in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9041 mobile: +44 (0)7717 728 648, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail:

2. For more information in the US, contact Dr. Resit Akçakaya on mobile: 1-631-942-2485, email:

3. 'Life history and spatial traits predict extinction risk due to climate change' is published online in Nature Climate Change on 26 February 2014

4. Journalists can obtain copies of the paper by contacting the authors or the UCL Media Relations Office.

5. Images of species used in the study will be available to journalists from UCL Media Relations.

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine.

We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by our performance in a range of international rankings and tables. According to the Thomson Scientific Citation Index, UCL is the second most highly cited European university and the 15th most highly cited in the world.

UCL has nearly 27,000 students from 150 countries and more than 9,000 employees, of whom one third are from outside the UK. The university is based in Bloomsbury in the heart of London, but also has two international campuses – UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. Our annual income is more than £800 million. | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel

About Stony Brook University

Part of the State University of New York system, Stony Brook University encompasses 200 buildings on 1,450 acres. Since welcoming its first incoming class in 1957, the University has grown tremendously, now with more than 24,000 students and 2,200 faculty. Its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 62 research institutions in North America. U.S. News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 40 public universities in the nation and Kiplinger named it the 29th best value in public colleges for in-state students and 20th for out-of-state students. As the largest single-site employer on Long Island, Stony Brook is a driving force of the regional economy, with an annual economic impact of $4.65 billion, generating nearly 60,000 jobs, and accounts for nearly 4% of all economic activity in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and roughly 7.5 percent of total jobs in Suffolk County. | Follow us on Twitter @stonybrooku

Siobhan Pipa | EurekAlert!

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