Associate Professor James Watson of the University of Queensland's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Wildlife Conservation Society said alarmingly, the team of international researchers found evidence of observed responses to recent climate changes in almost 700 birds and mammal species.
"There has been a massive under-reporting of these impacts," he said.
"Only seven per cent of mammals and four per cent of birds that showed a negative response to climate change are currently considered 'threatened by climate change and severe weather' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species."
Credit: Liana Joseph
Associate Professor Watson said the study reviewed the observed impacts of climate change on birds and mammals using a total of 130 studies, making it the most comprehensive assessment to date on how climate change has affected our most well studied species.
"The results suggested it is likely that around half the threatened mammals (out of 873 species) and 23 per cent of threatened birds (out of 1272 species) have already responded negatively to climate change," he said.
Lead author Michela Pacifici of the Global Mammal Assessment Program at Sapienza University of Rome said this implied that, in the presence of adverse environmental conditions, populations of these species had a high probability of also being negatively impacted by future climatic changes.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
Impacts for mammals are wide ranging and include a lower ability to exploit resources and adapt to new environmental conditions. For example, primates and marsupials, many of which have evolved in stable tropical areas, are vulnerable to rapid changes and extreme events brought on by climate change. In addition, primates and elephants, which are characterized by very slow reproductive rates that reduce their ability to adapt to rapid changes in environmental conditions, are also vulnerable. On the other hand, rodent species that can burrow, and thus avoid some extreme conditions, will be less vulnerable.
For birds, negative responses in both breeding and non-breeding areas were generally observed in species that experienced large changes in temperatures in the past 60 years, live at high altitudes, and have low temperature seasonality within their distributions. Many impacted species inhabit aquatic environments, which are considered among the most vulnerable to temperature increase due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and harmful algal blooms. In addition, changes in climate in tropical and subtropical forest areas, already exacerbated by habitat degradation, may threaten forest-dependent species.
Said lead author Michela Pacifici of the Global Mammal Assessment Program at Sapienza University of Rome: "It is likely that many of these species have a high probability of being very negatively impacted by expected future changes in the climate."
Said co-author Dr James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society and University of Queensland: "Our results clearly show that the impact of climate change on mammals and birds to date is currently greatly under-estimated and reported upon. We need to greatly improve assessments of the impacts of climate change on species right now, we need to communicate this to wider public and we need to ensure key decisions makers know that something significant needs to happen now to stop species going extinct. Climate change is not a future threat anymore."
The authors recommend that research and conservation efforts give greater attention to the `here and now' of climate change impacts on life on Earth. This also has significant implications for intergovernmental policy fora such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the revision of the strategic plan of the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Associate Professor Watson said the study clearly showed that the impact of climate change on mammals and birds to date has been greatly under estimated and reported on.
"This under-reporting is also very likely in less studied species groups. We need to greatly improve assessments of the impacts of climate change on all species right now," he said.
"We need to communicate the impacts of climate change to the wider public and we need to ensure key decision makers know significant change needs to happen now to stop species going extinct.
"Climate change is not a future threat anymore."
The paper was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.