A new international study including members of the Environment Institute, Damien Fordham and Barry Brook, has found the world’s most endangered cat species, the Iberian lynx, could be driven to extinction within 50 years due to climate change. Published today in Nature Climate Change,
“We show that climate change could lead to a rapid and severe decrease in lynx abundance in coming decades, and probably lead to its extinction in the wild within 50 years,” says lead author Dr Damien Fordham. “Current management efforts could be futile if they don’t take into account the combined effects of climate change, land use and prey abundance on population dynamics of the Iberian lynx.
Estimates indicate only 250 individuals survive in two populations on the Iberian Peninsula. Its decline has been linked to sharp regional reductions in its main prey species, the European Rabbit.
“Models used to investigate how climate change will affect biodiversity have so far been unable to capture the dynamic and complex feedbacks of species interactions,” says Dr Miguel Araújo, senior author and Spanish Research Council (CSIC) Senior Researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. “By developing new forecasting methods, we have managed, for the first time, to simulate demographic responses of lynx to spatial patterns of rabbit abundance conditioned by disease, climate change, and land use modification.”
Since 1994 over €90 million has been spent on saving the Iberian lynx including reintroductions into suitable habitats. Although there is evidence that lynx numbers have increased in the last ten years in response to intensive management, this study warns that the ongoing conservation strategies could buy just a few decades before the species goes extinct. This study is the most comprehensive conservation-management model yet developed of the effects of climate change on a predator and its prey.
CSIC researcher at the Estación Biológica de Doñana in Seville, Dr Alejandro Rodríguez, says: “Habitat in the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula, where the two existing populations of lynx persist, is most likely to be inhospitable to lynx by the middle of this century.”
“That the numbers of Iberian lynx are currently increasing suggests that intensive management of habitat and rabbit populations have worked as effective short-term conservation strategies, but small population size means that the species is still threatened and susceptible to future population declines,” says Professor Barry Brook, Chair of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide. “This means that the species is extremely vulnerable to shifts in habitat quality or to changes in the abundance of their rabbit prey due to climate change.”
The researchers say climate-change-informed decisions should be a common part of conservation practice.