17 July 2008

University of Queensland researchers believe we need to consider the radical step of moving plants and animals to help them survive the impact of climate change.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of UQ’s Centre for Marine Studies and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, is lead author on an article in the Policy Forum section of the prestigious scientific journal Science that sets out the principles of “assisted colonisation” to help save species threatened with extinction.

Together with his co-authors, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said many species were already unable to disperse or adapt fast enough to keep up with the high rates of climate change.

“If we are to take the latest climate science seriously, then our current conservation strategies will not work for the majority of the species,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“To be blunt, they need to change. Even under the mildest rates of climate change, the habitat of many species will contract.

“Consequently, the future for many species and ecosystems is so bleak that assisted colonisation might be their only chance of survival.”

The Policy Forum contribution was authored by seven of the world’s leading biologists including UQ’s Hugh Possingham, Lesley Hughes of Macquarie University, Sue McIntyre of CSIRO, David Lindenmayer of The Australian National University, Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas, Chris Thomas of UK’s York University, and Professor Hoegh-Guldberg.

Professor Hugh Possingham, who is an ARC Federation Fellow at UQ and Director of the Commonwealth Applied Environmental Decision Analysis research facility, said conservationists need to be far less conservative in their approach to species protection.

“Our policy-makers and managers have tried to ignore the option of assisted colonisation for far too long,” Professor Possingham said.

“Our contrary view is that an increased understanding of the habitat requirements and distributions of some species allow us to identify low-risk situations where the benefits of such assisted colonisation can be realised and adverse outcomes minimised.”

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg outlined how the group had developed a decision framework for guiding decision making as regards whether or not to move species.

“It comes down to assessing the risks and consequences carefully. You don’t want to get this wrong,” he said.

He said the framework will assist managers to develop appropriate strategies for vulnerable species, while allowing the more adaptable species to cope where they are.

“Timing is also everything. Our ability to respond to these future issues depends largely on when we get started on the solutions,” he said.

“These grim projections require serious thinking outside the box.

“While it might seem an anathema to managers today, these solutions may be our only hope for the future.”

Media: Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (in Costa Rica – 16 hours behind Brisbane, 0401 106 604), Professor Hugh Possingham (0434 079 061) or Andrew Dunne at UQ Communications (07 3365 2802 or 0433 364 181).