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Protect habitat ‘stepping stones’ to help species cope with climate change, scientists say

Safe passages for species adapting to climate change aren’t always being protected, a new study by the University of Liverpool warns.

With rising temperatures altering where species can survive, many are moving to newly hospitable patches further north. Key to this journey is ensuring suitable connectivity between where species currently live and where they might do in the future.

“If patches of habitat vital to connectivity are lost because they aren’t protected, a major way species can adapt to climate change will be hindered. We therefore need methods to identify the most important ‘stepping stones’ and consider these when designating protected areas for conservation,” explains researcher Thomas Travers.

In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers used a cutting-edge software tool called Condatis to explore how species might move northwards through 16 different habitat networks in England, quantifying the importance of different patches to this connectivity. They also explored how much connectivity could be improved by protecting some of the key areas.

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Natural England and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The team found that important connecting patches were often left out of the existing networks of protected area, meaning that less connectivity was protected than you might expect given the amount of habitat protection. Across 12 of the 16 habitat networks they studied, this shortfall averaged 13.6%.

However, they also found that if just a small amount of additional area was protected, it could have a major impact on helping to redress this imbalance and reduce vulnerability to climate change. By focusing on additional nature reserves to prioritise connectivity, the team estimates that an average of 41% more connectivity could be achieved with just a 10% increase in area protection.

Lead author Thomas Travers, a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, said: “The scientific community has been emphasising the importance of incorporating connectivity into the planning process for at least 30 years, and as global climates continue to change this importance will grow. Unfortunately, it appears the connectedness of habitats remains vulnerable to degradation and loss through lack of protection. We have shown that patches important to long-distance connectivity can be easily identified, allowing the proportion protected to be greatly increased with minimal additional resources.”

Co-author Dr Jamie Alison, from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, added: “We mustn’t forget to protect habitats that seem to be small and peripheral. They are valuable places for people to enjoy nature – but also for species to cope with climate change.”

Senior author Dr Jenny Hodgson, from the University of Liverpool, said “Securing the protection of our best habitats for wildlife is a fundamental first step towards making the natural world resilient in a changing climate. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s proposed target to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and seas for nature by 2030 (30×30 goal) provides an important and timely opportunity to shore up some of this connectivity protection deficit.”

Dr Humphrey Crick, from Natural England welcomed the study, and said: “The importance of connectivity has been emphasised in the Government’s approach to climate change adaptation and this study provides an excellent example of how we can use the latest science to help identify those areas that are potentially important”.

The software Condatis was developed by Dr Jenny Hodgson and has been used around the world to prioritise the best habitat to protect and restore.

Thomas Travers was funded by a NERC studentship through the Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment (ACCE) Doctoral Training Partnership. The study also received financial and logistical support from Natural England.

Research reference: Travers TJP, Alison J, Taylor SD, Crick HQP, Hodgson JA. 2021 Habitat patches providing south–north connectivity are under-protected in a fragmented landscape. Proc. R. Soc. B 20211010. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1010

Header image: Wast Water. Credit: Joe Hayhurst, CC BY 2.0.