Understanding the past to predict the future

University of Exeter / Biosciences

The Earth is warming. The plants and animals that populate its surface struggle to cope and must shift their distributions to areas of newly suitable climate to survive, resulting in major redistributions of ecosystems. This might sound like a description of today, but it’s actually what the Earth was like ~17,000 years ago, after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Over a period of roughly 9,000 years, the climate warmed drastically, ecosystems were lost and present-day species assemblages emerged. This time period is the perfect natural experiment for understanding how climate change will affect biodiversity today and in the future.

Ms Hannah Wauchope

As the climate begins to warm again, scientists are struggling to make large-scale predictions about how species will respond. We can estimate how the climate will change and predict where suitable habitat for species will occur through time (the ‘climate-path’), but we do not have a good understanding of how well species will be able to follow their climate-paths. Without this, we cannot make predictions about how species distributions will change. By studying the effects of warming since the LGM, we can learn which traits enable species to shift, or not shift, with climatic change, helping us to draw generalisations about how other species will move in the future.

I will use recently-released high-resolution datasets that provide detailed information on palaeo-ecological climate and land use, and concomitant data of hundreds of plant and animal species occurrences across the globe to observe how well species tracked their climate-paths after the LGM. I will identify which traits determine how successful species were in shifting and use this information to predict where hundreds of other species will occur in the future. Not only will this provide fascinating insight into the processes governing the movement of species around the world, but it will also provide crucial information for making effective conservation decisions. As the Earth’s Climate Emergency worsens, this project will allow protected area planning to incorporate future species distributions and identify the winners and losers of climate change, ensuring we are able to protect the biodiversity of tomorrow.