By John Kerr 11/09/2016

An international team of 22 biologists have called on their colleagues to get cracking and collect certain types of data to help predict how the planet’s estimated 8.7 million species will handle a warmer future.

“Our biggest challenge is pinpointing which species to concentrate on and which regions we need to allocate resources,” says Associate Professor Mark Urban from the University of Connecticut, lead author of the call-to-arms published this week in the leading journal Science.

“We are at a triage stage at this point. We have limited resources and patients lined up at the door.”

Fortunately, biologists are working on complex mathematical models that are increasingly accurate in forecasting what will happen to species as the climate changes. But the “biggest obstacle” in now using these models is a lack of real life data to inform calculations, write the article’s authors.

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In their Science article the researchers outline a number of ways to “fill this growing gap between model sophistication and information to predict and prevent the most damaging aspects of climate change for life on Earth.”

In particular, they  identify six key areas where biological information will significantly improve prediction outcomes for individual species, including : physiology, demography, species interactions, evolutionary potential, dispersal and responses to environmental variation.

Obtaining this information will not only help the scientific community better identify the most at-risk populations and ecosystems, the scientists say, it will also allow for a more targeted distribution of resources as global temperatures continue to rise at a record rate.

“We need to pull on our boots, grab our binoculars, and go back into the field to gather these key bits of information if we are going to make realistic predictions,” says Associate Professor Urban.


Emerging models are beginning to incorporate six key biological mechanisms that can improve predictions of biological responses to climate change. Models that include biological mechanisms have been used to project (clockwise from top) the evolution of disease-harboring mosquitoes, future environments and land use, physiological responses of invasive species such as cane toads, demographic responses of penguins to future climates, climate-dependent dispersal behavior in butterflies, and mismatched interactions between butterflies and their host plants. Despite thesemodeling advances,we seldom have the detailed data needed to build thesemodels, necessitating new efforts to collect the relevant data to parameterize more biologically realistic predictive models.
Examples where the six key biological mechanisms have already improved predictions of biological responses to climate change.  Urban et al. (2016).
Biologists need more data to improve forecasts for climate-sensitive species such as the tuatara.
Credit: DOC.

New Zealand biologists on board

“New Zealand’s strong foundation in ecological research will help,” says study co-author Dr William Godsoe, a Lincoln University lecturer and investigator in the Bio-Protection Research Centre.

“One of our hopes is to build on these strengths and highlight new opportunities to improve predictions by explicitly considering evolution, interactions among species, and dispersal.”

Tuatara were one species where the effects of climate change were already being documented, Dr Godsoe said in an interview with RNZ .

“If it’s really warm out, tuataras produce more males and in effect that means they’re wasting resources that could be used to produce females that are more useful for producing more offspring in the next generation.”

Ongoing monitoring needed

The article published in Science comes not long after another study, published in Austral Ecology, highlighted that Southern Hemisphere countries in particular need to improve their long term monitoring of climate sensitive species.

“Few countries anywhere in the world have comprehensive long-term biodiversity data to support the development of detailed climatic change adaptation programmes,”the authors wrote, “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.

Citizen science will be absolutely critical in collecting the extensive data needed to track how species are changing their habitat and life-cycles in response to climate change, said the authors.

Featured image: Flickr / _somaholiday

0 Responses to “Climate change: Biologists told to ‘pull on their boots’ and collect data”

  • Given that there are upwards of 2 million species on Earth, all of which are of equal “value”, and many of which are known from single specimens or just a few specimens, and all of which can respond differently (if at all) to climate change, we are only going to be able to get data on a few “key species”. The overall effect, if any, of climate change on the totality of the world’s species is beyond the realms of study.

    • But we do know that, generally, warmer is better and leads to more speciation. Colder is tougher, but leads to speciation also. Just somewhat less species and numbers of individuals. It is all about available energy and now is not unusual. Just cannot count on more warmth in the short to medium term, geologically-speaking.

  • Stephen “all of which are of equal “value” Says who? Some species are much more valuable than others, such as bees, for example, on which many plant species depend for pollination. No one is asking for everything to be studied.