Using species traits to guide conservation actions under climate change

Nathalie Butt*, Rachael Gallagher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Few assessments of species vulnerability to climate change used to inform conservation management consider the intrinsic traits that shape species’ capacity to respond to climate change. This omission is problematic as it may result in management actions that are not optimised for the long-term persistence of species as climates shift. We present a tool for explicitly linking data on plant species’ life history traits and range characteristics to appropriate management actions that maximise their capacity to respond to climate change. We deliberately target data on easily measured and widely available traits (e.g. dispersal syndrome, height, longevity) and range characteristics (e.g. range size, climatic/soil niche breadth), to allow for rapid comparison across many species. We test this framework on 1237 plants, categorising species on the basis of their potential climate change risk as related to four factors affecting their response capacity: reproduction, movement capability, abiotic niche specialisation and spatial coverage. Based on these four factors, species were allocated risk scores, and these were used to test the hypothesis that the current protection status under national legislation and related management actions capture species response capacity to climate change. Our results indicate that 20% of the plant species analysed (242 species) are likely to have a low capacity to respond to climate change based on the traits assessed, and are therefore at high risk. Of the 242 high risk species, only 10% (24 species) are currently listed for protection under conservation legislation. Importantly, many management plans for these listed species fail to address the capacity of species to respond to climate change with appropriate actions: 70% of approved management plans do not include crucial actions which may improve species’ ability to adapt to climate change. We illustrate how the use of easily attainable traits associated with ecological and evolutionary responses to changing environmental conditions can inform conservation actions for plant species globally.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-332
Number of pages16
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018


  • adaptive capacity
  • conservation decision-making
  • environmental niche breadth
  • EPBC Act
  • global change
  • life history traits
  • vulnerability


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