Iberian lynx threatened by climate change

Climate change could drive the Iberian lynx – the world’s most threatened cat – to extinction within 50 years, despite substantial ongoing conservation efforts, a new international study has found.

The researchers say the impact of climate change must be incorporated in strategies to reintroduce the Iberian lynx to new habitats if the species is to be saved. 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. [*See the picture credit below.]

Current management efforts could be futile if the combined effects of climate change, land use and prey abundance on population dynamics of the Iberian lynx are not taken into account.

The Iberian lynx is the world’s most endangered cat species, with an estimated 250 individuals surviving in the wild. Recent declines have been associated with sharp regional reductions in the abundance of its main prey, the European rabbit. Only two Iberian lynx populations persist in the wild, compared to nine in the 1990s.

More than €90 million (US$120 million) has been spent since 1994 in attempts to save the species, mainly through habitat management, reduction of destructive human activity and, more recently, reintroducing the lynx into suitable areas where they have lived in recent history.

Although there is evidence that lynx numbers have increased in the past 10 years in response to intensive management, the researchers warn that ongoing conservation strategies could buy just a few decades before the species becomes extinct.

They say the study is the most comprehensive conservation-management model yet developed of the effects of climate change on a predator and its prey.

“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,” says Dr Miguel Araújo, senior author and a senior researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid.

“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.”

Habitat in the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula, where the two existing populations of lynx persist, is most likely to be inhospitable to lynx by the middle of this century. Current reintroduction plans are targeting the south of Spain and Portugal but survival of the species in the long term may require higher latitude and higher altitude regions on the peninsula.

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, the researchers say.

This means the species is extremely vulnerable to shifts in habitat quality or to changes in the abundance of their rabbit prey due to climate change. Climate change-informed decisions should be a common part of conservation practice.

A report of the research was published in Nature Climate Change.

* Author: Hector Garrido. Copyright: CSIC Andalusia Audiovisual Bank.