By John Kerr 23/08/2016

We need to keep an eye on key species to track the impacts of climate change, but southern hemisphere countries like New Zealand and Australia are falling behind.

The warning comes from South African and Australian scientists in an article published today in Austral Ecology.

As the world warms, say the authors, we need long-term data to understand how plants and animals are changing their habitats and lifecycles. Without this knowledge, policy makers will be in the dark about the impacts of global change on biodiversity. This in turn will hamper adaptation planning and conservation management.

“Few countries anywhere in the world have comprehensive long-term biodiversity data to support the development of detailed climatic change adaptation programmes,” they write, “but the lack of data and capacity to interpret it in policy, planning and management contexts is acute in much of the south.”

They warn that even relatively well-resourced countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile and South Africa are poor in long time series data compared with countries in Europe, Asia and North America.

Long-term datasets needed to detect the impacts of global change on southern biodiversity are still scarce and often incomplete
Long-term datasets needed to detect the impacts of global change on southern biodiversity are still scarce and often incomplete, say the authors. Credit: NASA.


Citing the large climatic differences between the northern and southern hemispheres, the authors stress that we cannot rely on data from the north to understand how life in the southern hemisphere will change in a warming world.

“Significant national and international investment and collaboration are needed for most southern nations to reliably track biodiversity trends and improve conservation adaptation to rapid climate change.”

Climate canaries

Some species act as ‘sentinels’ offering the first signals of environmental change – a sort of canary in the climate coalmine. Last year the New Zealand Herald covered a number of plants and animals which might offer the first insights into a changing climate, including humpback whales, tuatara and kauri trees.

Several of the scientists interviewed warned that without continuing research and monitoring, drastic shifts in biodiversity might go unnoticed.

Auckland University biological sciences lecturer Dr Brendon Dunphy said that warming oceans may have impacted the diet of sooty sheerwaters, leading more to more of the birds dying after lengthy migrations, but:

“In the absence of ongoing monitoring programmes in New Zealand, it’s hard to say.”

The sooty shearwater: an early victim of climate change? Credit: Wikimedia / marlin harms.
The sooty shearwater: an early warning of global change? Credit: Wikimedia / marlin harms.

Calling on citizen scientists

Modern science does have an ace up its sleeve: people power. Citizen science must play an increasing role in data collection say the authors of the Austral Ecology article. They highlight initiatives such as ClimateWatch in Australia and the Southern African Bird Atlas Project as the types of programmes we need to see more of in the southern hemisphere.

These projects “readily and very cost-effectively gather valuable basic data for tracking and understanding environmental change,” say the authors.

“Such programmes offer promise, both as components of early warning systems of environmental change, and increasing understanding of the responses of southern ecosystems and species to rapid change in the face of low institutional capacity.”

Here in New Zealand there are a growing number of citizen science initiatives taking place. The Inventory of Citizen Science in New Zealand, just published this month, provides a first-of-its-kind snapshot of citizen science activities across the country.

0 Responses to “Climate impacts on southern species – where’s the data?”

  • Work by Birds New Zealand and other observers to collect observations and file them with eBird ( is a key Citizen Science activity which supports the points made in this post. As well the Society holds and adds to some of the longest bird datasets in New Zealand. Examples include the beach patrol scheme (started 1943) the New Zealand Wader Counts and others. More details on these schemes is available at

    • Thanks for the links Bruce, NZ bird data does go back a long way! The authors are in agreement with you on this, acknowledging in the paper (see Box 1): “Bird data are by far the most common of animal diversity datasets in the south around which to build early warning systems, with bird atlases providing fast emerging insights into species responses to environmental change in southern Africa, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands.”

      They go on to note that despite some good plant and bird databases in the southern hemisphere, we need more datasets covering other taxa: “In the absence of more comprehensive data, these [plant and bird datasets] are used to highlight potential problem areas for species in other groups, but results must be interpreted cautiously, as patterns in one species may not reflect biodiversity or threat patterns in another.”

  • The problem here is fundamental. Most species on Earth are tiny terrestrial arthropods which are rarely seen or sampled. There are far too many species for the few taxonomists in the world to deal with. I expect that every species can be expected to react differently to climate change, so we cannot use one species as a proxy for another. Therefore, any effects of climate change on anything other than a few key species will remain unknown, period! The effects may be positive or negative in terms of that species survival.