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On the move - 'endangered species should shift with climate'

By Martin Leggett - 18 Mar 2011 15:1:0 GMT
On the move - 'endangered species should shift with climate'

The facts of climate change are already starkly apparent on the ground - whether in the acidification of the oceans, or the withering of ecosystems that support some of our most endangered species. Now an expert in Conservation Biology, Prof. Chris Thomas from the University of York, has proposed that long-held notions of maintaining species in their habitat should be relaxed. In order to avoid climate change adding to rapidly increasing species extinction, he is asking that conservationists consider 'translocation' of endangered species to new habitats.

This is a dramatic departure for the conservation movement, which has based much of its efforts on the preservation of endangered species within the ecosystems that they originated from. This means that while the reintroduction of, say, the beaver in Scotland - once part of its native range - would be welcomed, introducing a species to an environment where it was not previously present would be frowned upon.

Professor Thomas argues in an opinion paper, printed in the latest issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, that climate change is making such a static approach redundant - and risky. As the planet warms, and the climate zones shift, there are likely to be substantial changes in ecosystems worldwide, which may tip those most threatened species over the edge.

The idea of regional translocation would be to draw up a list of possible new homes, for a range of endangered species, and to take action to move them risks were seen to rise. Obviously careful assessment would need to be made, so as to ensure species already present in the habitat weren't adversely affected. But Professor Thomas is not too concerned - he indicates that previous research has shown, for example, that 2,000 new species have been introduced into the UK - without indigenous species being displaced.

Examples where foreign species introduction have caused harm have generally involved very long range movements - something he is not advocating. But action on planning for regional or local translocation is needed now. He states ''We need to develop a long 'shopping list' of potential translocations and, where possible, put in place monitoring of extant populations to help identify when action is needed. The later we leave it, the harder and more expensive translocations will become.''