The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) bears the dubious distinction of being the most endangered cat on the planet. The species has been whittled down to just 250 individuals, which are divided into two small subpopulations in southwestern Spain. To visualize just how few of these lynx are left, picture this: you could fit each of the two remaining subpopulations into an average Starbucks store.
Although you are unlikely to find an Iberian lynx in your local coffee shop, they are going to need to find someplace to go—soon. A new paper in the journal Nature Climate Science reports that due to the effects of climate change, the Iberian lynx will be extinct in less than 50 years unless wildlife managers drastically overhaul their management tactics (Fordham et al. 2013).
The research team, led by Miguel Araújo of the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum, created a series of ecological niche models and metapopulation simulations to assess how changes in climate, prey availability, and management regimes will affect the lynx’s chances of survival. Most ecological forecasting of this type relies solely on climate information, and rarely takes into account species interactions. By including prey availability, Araújo’s team accounts for the fact that part of the lynx’s vulnerability is based on the effects that climate will have on its primary prey species, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).
The results were not promising. The models showed that that there will be no way for the Iberian lynx to adapt to the changes wrought by climate change within its historical range quickly enough to avoid extinction in the wild. To make a bad situation worse, the Iberian Peninsula lacks habitat corridors that would allow the lynx to move northwards as climate change encroaches into their current territory.
This is clearly a dire situation, although the Iberian lynx has been far from neglected. Wildlife managers in Spain have made concerted efforts to reduce road mortalities, crack down on poaching, stabilize rabbit populations, and facilitate captive breeding. All of those tactics address issues that are severe but in no way novel—such challenges have been the driving forces for species declines across the globe for centuries. Times are changing, though, and continuing to focus solely on these “classic” issues will not be enough.
As climate change accelerates, conservation managers will no longer be able to exclude it from the equation. For example, the Iberian lynx breeding program involves carefully managed pairings in captivity to maximize the genetic diversity of new litters, followed by reintroducing the animals to areas within their historical range. Sounds great—but that last part is becoming a key concern. As we learned from the recent ecological models, conditions in the Iberian lynx’s historical range will no longer be suitable for lynx survival in the near future. It will be critical for managers to shift reintroduction efforts to the northern Iberian Peninsula, which could serve as a “climate refugia” for both the lynx and its prey.
Araújo and colleagues conclude that simply creating habitat corridors for the lynx to move farther north would not work: too slow and too expensive. Their solution is “managed reintroductions”: packing the lynxes up and depositing them in a new place. Anyone who has ever had to try to pack any cat up and take it anywhere against its will should recognize that this is no small undertaking.
The whole situation creates a huge logistical headache, as wildlife managers are faced with finding suitable new habitat in the north, obtaining all the permissions to introduce predators, shifting the entire Iberian lynx population to a new region of the peninsula, hoping that the animals can settle in without too many losses from stress and the “growing pains” of adjusting to a new place. They are also likely to face the local political challenges that plague any predator reintroduction program, as current denizens of the northern part of the peninsula have never before had to coexist with these cats. Araújo and colleagues remind us that the Iberian lynx occurred as far north as southeastern France during the Pleistocene, according to fossil evidence. Thus, a more northern presence is not unprecedented, but it has not occurred within historical times. Quite a bit can change in 11,000 years.
There is also a philosophical challenge to the situation. Is it within the mandate of managers to physically move an entire species outside of its historical range? Are we treating nature like a toy if we go that route? Is such a heavily managed population really even a “natural” ecological entity anymore? On the other hand, could it be our responsibility to do this, since anthropogenic activity has caused the declines of the lynx, the closing of habitat corridors, and climate change itself? There will be no easy answers, but it seems that more and more conservation managers will be faced with such questions in the near future.
What if there are sudden, dramatic, atypically enthusiastic efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and slow the pace of climate change? That brings us to even more sobering news. The models also showed that even immediate and steep decreases in greenhouse gas emissions could not prevent the Iberian lynx from going extinct if it stays within its historical range. As a matter of fact, strong efforts to decrease emissions would actually accelerate the lynx’s decline. The authors explain that coal combustion creates atmospheric aerosols that result in “dimming” effect, suppressing temperatures. Switching to alternative energy sources is projected to initially make the lynx’s habitat warmer and drier as the aerosols begin to dissipate, which would exacerbate the current challenges to their survival.
We have painted ourselves into a climatic corner, so to speak, and have passed the point at which mitigation efforts will be able to reverse rapid extinctions of the Iberian lynx and many other species across the globe. The upcoming generation of conservation biologists and managers will have to be proactive in finding creative solutions for staving off massive losses of biodiversity. The logistical and philosophical challenges involved will not be easy, but they can no longer be avoided.
Anne-Marie Hodge, EGN’s Species Science Advisor, is currently a PhD student at the University of Wyoming in Ecology, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Zoology from Auburn University and a Master of Science in Biology from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. While at Auburn, she established and served as president of Alabama’s first chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. Anne-Marie’s research interests include community ecology, predator-prey dynamics, and conservation, with a focus on tropical carnivores. She has research experience in Mexico, Belize, Ecuador, and Kenya.