Balancing Impacts of Range-shifting Species: Invasives vs. Biodiversity

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In a new perspective paper published in Nature Climate Change and highlighted by EurekAlert!, the Northeast CASC’s Toni Lyn Morelli and coauthors discuss the need for a framework to assess potential impacts of species range shifts in the face of climate change.

Image: Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel

Radio-collared female Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel in a high elevation red spruce stand on Whitetop Mountain, VA. Credit: Corinne Diggins, Virginia Tech/USGS VCFWRU. (public domain)

Read the original news story posted by EurekAlert!.

Improving habitat connectivity has been hailed as a conservation strategy that can benefit biodiversity under a changing climate by enabling species to move along corridors and follow their preferred climate. However, invasive species experts have also noted that competition resulting from new species arriving to an area can decrease biodiversity and supplant native species in some regions. This is especially true for plants and animals of high-latitude and high-elevation ecosystems which are facing an influx of species that are shifting their ranges northwards or upslope in response to climate change. For example, the northern flying squirrel, native to the Northeast, is being killed off by a parasite carried by the southern flying squirrel, a range shifter that has recently moved into northern regions. As a result, the northern flying squirrel is no longer found in the state of Massachusetts.

To address these concerns, researchers from the Northeast CASC, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California, Irvine, and other institutions suggest a framework for assessing the likelihood that range-shifting species could impact their new communities. In a new perspective published in Nature Climate Change, led by Northeast CASC Research Ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli, researchers recommend tools like the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Environmental Impact Classification of Alien Taxa (EICAT), which can be used to estimate the risks of invasive and range-shifting species. The authors also propose that increased dialogue between groups of scientists with opposing viewpoints regarding range-shifting plants and animals can improve management of these species and ultimately aid in biodiversity conservation. Importantly, few studies have focused attention on assessing the effect of range-shifting species following their preferred climate into new regions, even when the potential for this behavior to negatively impact the recipient ecosystem is high.

“We should at least know that we’re losing species,” said Morelli. “This is a complicated issue. We want species to be able to move around; for many, this will be their only chance to persist. But we also need to be aware of the negative repercussions for recipient ecosystems. In rare cases, we will want to manage them.”

This research was funded in part by the Northeast CASC.

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