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Using species traits to guide conservation actions under climate change

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Abstract

Few assessments of species vulnerability to climate change used to inform conservation management consider the intrinsic traits that shape species’ capacity to respond to climate change. This omission is problematic as it may result in management actions that are not optimised for the long-term persistence of species as climates shift. We present a tool for explicitly linking data on plant species’ life history traits and range characteristics to appropriate management actions that maximise their capacity to respond to climate change. We deliberately target data on easily measured and widely available traits (e.g. dispersal syndrome, height, longevity) and range characteristics (e.g. range size, climatic/soil niche breadth), to allow for rapid comparison across many species. We test this framework on 1237 plants, categorising species on the basis of their potential climate change risk as related to four factors affecting their response capacity: reproduction, movement capability, abiotic niche specialisation and spatial coverage. Based on these four factors, species were allocated risk scores, and these were used to test the hypothesis that the current protection status under national legislation and related management actions capture species response capacity to climate change. Our results indicate that 20% of the plant species analysed (242 species) are likely to have a low capacity to respond to climate change based on the traits assessed, and are therefore at high risk. Of the 242 high risk species, only 10% (24 species) are currently listed for protection under conservation legislation. Importantly, many management plans for these listed species fail to address the capacity of species to respond to climate change with appropriate actions: 70% of approved management plans do not include crucial actions which may improve species’ ability to adapt to climate change. We illustrate how the use of easily attainable traits associated with ecological and evolutionary responses to changing environmental conditions can inform conservation actions for plant species globally.

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Acknowledgements

Both authors are supported by Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Awards (DE150101552 to N. Butt and DE170100208 to R. Gallagher). We are grateful to Lesley Hughes and Tony Auld for helpful discussions, and thank Jessica O’Donnell for her assistance with figures.

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Correspondence to Nathalie Butt.

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Dataset of response capacity for 1237 plant species. (XLSX 170 kb)

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Butt, N., Gallagher, R. Using species traits to guide conservation actions under climate change. Climatic Change 151, 317–332 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2294-z

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