• Conservation efforts to protect the world’s most threatened cat from extinction could be jeopardised if the effects of climate change are not considered in reintroduction strategies, concludes a new study in Nature Climate Change.
  • This research provides the most comprehensive analysis of the effects of climate change yet for a threatened vertebrate.

The Iberian lynx is the world’s most threatened cat, with recent counts estimating only 250 individuals surviving in the wild. Recent declines of Iberian lynx have been associated with sharp regional reductions in the abundance of its main prey, the European rabbit caused mainly by myxomatosis virus and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. At present, only two Iberian lynx populations persist in the wild compared with nine in the 1990s.

Over €90 million has been spent since 1994 to mitigate the extinction risk of this charismatic animal, mainly through habitat management, reduction of human-caused mortality and, more recently, translocation. The aim is to facilitate the reintroduction of a genetically diverse pool of lynx into suitable areas within their recent historical range. Although lynx abundance may have increased in last ten years in response to intensive management, this new study warns that the ongoing conservation strategies could buy just a few decades before the species goes extinct: “In our study 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 the lead author of the study, Damien Fordham, from the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia. According to Dr. 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”.

This study is the “first to explicitly model trophic interactions of species, such as predators and their prey, in a climate change setting”, says Professor Miguel Araújo. “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, but 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”. Prof. Araújo emphasises that “the sophisticated model took more than 5 years to implement and was only possible thanks to an international collaboration with experts from Europe, Australia and the USA”.

The results of the models are both startling and of concern. “Habitat in the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula, where the two extant populations of lynx persist, is most likely to be inhospitable to lynx by the middle of this century”, says Alejandro Rodríguez, an Iberian lynx ecologist and CSIC researcher at the Doñana Biological Station in Seville. Current reintroduction plans are targeting the south of Spain and Portugal, but survival of the species in the long term will require that reintroductions in ecological refuges at higher latitude or altitude within the Iberian Peninsula will be considered”. “As fragmentary data including fossil, sub-fossil and historical records suggest that lynx once occurred elsewhere within the Iberian Peninsula, such reintroductions may still fall within the historical species range”, concludes Rodríguez.

“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 Barry Brook, a global-change biologist and Professor of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. “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.”

“Naturally there is uncertainty about future climate change, especially in terms of regional impacts”, says Miguel Araújo. “However, if conservationists are asking governments to change their macroeconomic policies to mitigate climate change, potentially with high cost for some sectors of society, it is hard to understand why climate change is still rarely accounted for in species conservation programmes. Our study provides one example when anticipating the effects of climate change in conservation plans could help save a species from extinction, but the need for climate-informed conservation decisions is pervasive and should be part of common practice”, concludes Araújo.

Fordham, D.A., Akçakaya, H.R., Brook, B.W., Rodríguez, A., Alves, P.C., Civantos, E., Triviño, M., Watts, M.J. & Araújo, M.B. 2013. Adapted conservation measures are required to save the Iberian Lynx in a changing climate. Nature Climate Change. Doi: 10.1038/nclimate1954