Coastal Biodiversity Resilience to Increasing Extreme Events in the Caribbean

Principal Investigators:

Dr. Miguel Araujo CSIC-MNCN


Dr. Rosa Maria Roman-Cuesta, CIFOR

1. Background

Central America (CA) (Mesoamerica + Caribbean) has faced increased exposure to damaging climate extreme events. This region has long been dubbed the miner’s canary of climate change due to three reasons:

First, the region has suffered a steady increase in extreme events since the 70s in the form of floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes. In the period 2010–2018, 62 tropical storms (11 Hurricanes>category 4) occurred in the Caribbean basin compared to 28 (6>category 4) in the 80s. In line with this increment, Caribbean hosted the multi record-breaking hurricane seasons of 2017 and 2018 with more named storms than ever recorded, simultaneously active storms, and extra-tropical landings. Some islands like Bahamas, Barbuda, Dominica, Turks and Caicos, Antigua or Puerto Rico suffered such severe socio-economic and ecological damages that their economies remain disrupted two years after.

Second, the region hosts 7 out the 36 most water-stressed countries in the world (out of 183), and there is scientific agreement that the region hosts a drying trend since the 70s particularly affecting the Central American Dry Corridor (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua).

Third, increasing exposure to climate hazards combine with increasing social vulnerabilities in a region of 45 million inhabitants where rural population reaches up to 50% in some areas, some of them bordering poverty lines.

Recognised as a World Hotspot of Biodiversity, Central America is a natural laboratory to understand the impacts of climate extremes on biodiversity. The area hosts two biological corridors, the Caribbean (Cuba to Puerto Rico) and the Mesoamerican Biological Corridors (Mexico to Panama). These are biological passageways that connect the Greater Antilles (West-East), and the American Continents (North-South), hosting nearly 1,120 bird species. They also provide critical winter habitat and stop-over points for about 225 species of migratory birds. Besides its terrestrial diversity, the region also harbors exceptional marine diversity through its Caribbean and Mesoamerican Reefs Barriers. These are unique coral reef systems extending ca 1000 km each, from West to East (Cuba-Puerto Rico) and from North to South (Yucatan-Honduras). They support more than 65 species of stony coral, 350 species of mollusk and more than 500 species of fish.

Increasing human population and associated rural-dependent lifestyles place increasing pressure over the valuable habitats of Central American landscapes and seascapes. The impacts of extreme events are, therefore, building on already human-degraded ecosystems, highlighting the need for more efficient management and conservation measures. Whilst our capacity of monitoring extreme events is increasing, their effects on biodiversity are not yet fully understood, nor properly monitored. Research on the responses of birds to the Mega-Hurricane seasons of 2005 and 2017 highlight decreases in species richness and abundances, with severe implications for the survival of critically endangered endemics. On the other extreme, the ENSO drought and heat waves of 1998, 2015-2016, 2017-2018 have systematically resulted in regional bleaching and emergent coral diseases. In spite of these negative responses, the majority of these studies focus on less than one year after the disturbance and do not follow species nor ecosystem recovery over time. This constrains our understanding of how resilient species and ecosystems are to changing patterns of extreme events.

From a management perspective, regardless of the responses of biodiversity to extreme events, they always come mediated by habitat destruction. Adaptive management must therefore focus on habitat protection and connectivity. Because the climate events highlighted in this proposal primarily impact the coastal region, we will focus on habitat destruction of mangroves and reefs. Whilst there is growing evidence that Central America is seeing unusual increases in its climate extremes, the unanswered question for conservationists and policy makers is how resilient is coastal biodiversity to these new climate ‘ab-normals’ in the short and long-term? and how does this translate into efficient and effective conservation programs and policies?

Supported by an impressive array of European and regional partners, this research will be led by the Spanish Research Council – National Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC-MNCN), in close coordination with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and its USAID-funded project SWAMP Program (Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation). This consortium will make use of citizen science databases, including both terrestrial and marine ecosystems to answer these and other questions. The aim is to offer insights to support regional conservation strategies in this new era of climate ‘ab-normals’ and to disseminate them through a creative range of means including a documentary, museum exhibitions, school visits, scientific papers and policy-science debates.


This proposal focuses on understanding the vulnerability and resilience of Central American (Caribbean and Mesoamerican) coastal ecosystems (flora, birds, corals and fish) to the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and droughts, with the aim to support conservation planning in the region. Flora will relate exclusively to mangrove trees (there are only five species in the region), and birds will exclusively focus on coastal birds, ideally mangrove specialists. More specifically, we will: 1. Characterize and map the extension and properties of hurricanes and drought episodes since the 80s and their degradation effect on mangroves and reefs. 2. Assess the impacts of intensified extreme events (hurricanes and droughts) on the vulnerability and resilience of coastal biodiversity (flora, birds, reef species), through a gradient of habitat damage (mangroves and reef ecosystems). 3. Assess the role of protected areas and conservation management to promote resilience in the affected species. 4. Model biodiversity scenarios for coastal ecosystems under future regimes of extreme events in the region. 5. Investigate potential connectivity between biodiversity resilience in the terrestrial (mangroves) and aquatic (reefs) domains of coastal ecosystems, particularly in protected areas. 6. Open a science-policy debate on pathways to promote coastal biodiversity conservation under intensified climate extremes in the region, particularly for mangrove and reef ecosystems. 3. PARTNERS Scientific partners include those working on marine conservation and monitoring (Healthy Reefs for Healthy People; The Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and its marine monitoring unit, UN-Environment Caribbean Biological Corridor; and the Smithsonian Institute Marine Conservation Center); bird conservation and monitoring (SOPI-Sociedad Ornitologica de Puerto Rico). On mangrove research, including Blue Carbon, we have CIFOR (Centre for International Forestry Research) who has been working in the region under USAID-SWAMP Program funds, CATIE (Centro Agronomico Tropical para la Investigacion y la Ensenanza) a founding member of the Blue Carbon Initiative, STRI-Panama running research on mangrove die-back, NASA, CINVESTAV-Yucatan (with long term research on sustainable use and restoration of mangroves), UNAM-Mexico (collaborator of CINVESTAV). We also count on Governmental organizations such as CONABIO in Mexico (Comision Nacional para el Uso y Conocimiento de la Biodiversidad), SENACYT-Secretaria Nacional para la Ciencia y la Tecnologia-Panama, and the Ministry of Environment of the Dominican Republic with coastal legal frameworks and conservation action very high among their presidential goals. All these partners count on a long-term presence in the region and directly influence or lead policy making and action on the ground.


• We are looking for a bright and committed candidate with a publication record in global change biology, climate change, conservation planning and/or global earth modelling. An interest in tropical ecology of mangroves or birds is a plus.

• PhD in ecology, biology, environmental sciences, geography or related subject.

• Ability to work in groups, share ideas, and network is valued since the project involves international-wide collaborative effort.

• Priority is given to candidates with proven academic experience in statistical analysis of ecological and/or climate data, and modelling.

• Solid knowledge of R required.

• Fluency in English, both written and spoken, is required as all scientific discussions and writing are to be undertaken in this language. Knowledge of Spanish would be a plus.


• A two-year contract. • Office and services within the National Museum of Natural Science (CSIC) in Madrid.

• A gross salary between ca. 38K Eur per year and 49K depending on experience and track record.

• Membership of large international research project with plenty of opportunities to network and get involved in research after the completion of the 2 years contract.

• Paid travel to support annual meetings in Central America (Panama, Mexico).


Those interested, please send your application to Miguel Bastos Araújo (maraujo “at” mncn “dot” csic “dot” es) before April 13th 2020 with:

• a complete CV matching the post requirements (no longer than 4 pages);

• a cover letter of interest explaining why you are ideal for the post;

• Two names of people who can provide references about the candidate.