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New Study Encourages Inclusion of Adaptive Capacity when Assessing Vulnerability

A new paper led by U.S. Geological Survey Ecologists Erik Beever and Michelle Staudinger addresses the importance of including adaptive capacity of species as a fundamental component when assessing vulnerability to rapid climate change.

American Pika (Public Domain)

Assessing the vulnerability of wildlife species to a changing climate is critical for understanding what adaptation actions need to be taken to minimize negative impacts. The ability of species to adapt to the impacts of climate change (i.e., their adaptive capacity) is an important factor to consider when assessing vulnerability. For example, organisms can possess traits that allow them to move to areas of favorable habitat or change their phenotypes (observable characteristics) in response to changing environmental conditions. Additionally, an organism’s traits can adapt to a changing external environment over multiple generations through evolutionary processes. Adaptive capacity accounts for coping mechanisms such as changes in behavior, movements including shifts in geographical range and distribution, as well as genetic evolution to adjust to environmental or ecological stressors.

A recently published paper addresses the importance of including the adaptive capacity of species as a fundamental component when assessing the vulnerability of wildlife to rapid climate change. This paper was led by U.S. Geological Survey Ecologists Erik Beever (Research Ecologist, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center) and Michelle Staudinger (Science Coordinator, Northeast Climate Science Center), along with John O'Leary (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and former member of the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, ACCCNRS), Bruce Stein (National Wildlife Federation and current Co-Chair of ACCCNRS), and other partners.   

The vulnerability of wildlife to climate change is dependent on three main things:
1. the amount of climate change a species will experience (its exposure),
2. the species' responsiveness to direct and indirect climate impacts (its sensitivity), and
3. the species' ability to accommodate those changes through adaptive capacity (the focus of this study). 

A nationwide survey conducted by the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC) of hundreds of climate change vulnerability assessments found that among the three components of vulnerability (exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity), adaptive capacity is evaluated the least frequently, often omitted entirely, and is often confused with sensitivity.  To address these limitations, USGS and colleagues from a broad range of federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations came together to identify ecological features that contribute to adaptive capacity, highlight the potential role for management and conservation to enhance species’ adaptive capacity, outline research needed to better understand adaptive capacity, and provide case studies illustrating how the inclusion of adaptive capacity can enhance species-response models to climate change. 

The authors argue that consistent inclusion of adaptive capacity would improve existing vulnerability assessments, the efficacy of climate change adaptation efforts, natural resource management, conservation, decision-making, and related policies.  By not fully accounting for species’ inherent abilities to respond to environmental and ecological change, future projections may be overestimating extinction potential of some species; however, the authors assert that existence of adaptive capacity does not indicate that species can handle unlimited amounts of contemporary climate change.  They conclude that variability in adaptive capacity among populations and species will have profound implications for which species are most rapidly and markedly affected by climate change. 

The paper, “Improving Conservation Outcomes with a New Paradigm for Understanding Species’ Fundamental and Realized Adaptive Capacity” was published in the March/April 2016 edition of Conservation Letters.  The publication represents a collaborative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, National Research Council, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, universities from across the country and world, and several NGOs.    

For more information, contact Erik Beever at 406-994-7670, or Michelle Staudinger at (413) 577-1318,