Assisting endangered species to migrate could be the only way to prevent their extinction as habitat loss accelerates, according to a team of Australian scientists.
Dr Tara Martin of the CSIRO, detailed the 'managed relocation' strategy in a presentation at The Ecological Society of Australia's annual conference in Canberra this week. She says many species are on the brink of extinction as their habitats shrink, and that the situation will only get worse with global warming.
"Climate change is real, it's happening, and species will need to be shifted if they are to survive. So we're not asking 'if' we should be undertaking managed relocation, but 'when'," says Martin.
She says the team is currently looking at which types of species will be the first to require assisted migration.
In research yet to be published, Dr Martin and her colleagues say deciding when and how to move a species to a new area is far from simple.
She says in deciding when to to move populations we need to know how the new area will respond to climate change. Some areas may not be entirely suitable now, but will become suitable as climate change progresses.
"It depends on where we're planning to move that species, the destination habitat," she says.
"Is that destination habitat currently suitable for that species or is it likely to become suitable in the future?"
Dangers of introduced species
There is also the risk that a species may become invasive in a new environment.
"That's one of the big concerns," Martin says. "They could actually do very well and displace things that are in those habitats at present."
Professor Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales echoes that concern.
"You have to factor in the dynamics of the total community into which you're going to introduce a species," he says.
"Until we understand those dynamics we could do more harm than good by leading to the extinction of something else in the destination environment."
Archer says the fossil record also contains critical information that is not being properly taken into account.
"One of the things we can learn is that current distribution massively understates the environmental capacity of a species," he says.
"There's nothing like learning from the past to broaden our understanding of what kind of potential adaptability these species have. But modern ecologists in Australia have a tendency not to look back beyond about 200 years because that's [the period] they get their data from."
Noah's Ark solution
Archer says the jury is still out on whether strategies like assisted migration are going to be successful in the long term.
"Saying that we have this capacity to shift things around gives some comfort to some people at least on a theoretical basis. At the end of the day you've got to have viable communities into which you can shift them."
Martin agrees that managed relocation is not a quick fix.
"It's a bit of a Noah's Ark concept and if we rely on this strategy alone to save biodiversity then we've really lost the game.
"This will be used in some specific circumstances for species that we really care about but it will not be a saviour for biodiversity in the face of climate change."