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Biodiversity boost from climate change

Posted 05/09/2012 by sevans

Much has been made about the potential loss of biodiversity around the globe. Protection is sought for very many different species and habitats, and humans are blamed for most, if not all, of the loss in biodiversity so far identified. But are humans the only factor?

A new study by scientists from the UK universities of York, Glasgow and Leeds suggests that biodiversity on Earth generally increases as the planet warms, although warm periods in the past also experienced extinctions of existing species as well (PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200844109). 

This result is based on analysis of fossil and geological records of marine invertebrates that go back 540m years. The research is a refinement of an earlier study that analysed biodiversity over the same period but with a less sophisticated data set. But that earlier study concluded that a warming climate results in a loss of biodiversity.

As Alistair McGowan, from the school of geographical and earth sciences at Glasgow University, said: ‘The previous findings always seemed paradoxical. Ecological studies show that species richness consistently increases towards the Equator, where it is warm, yet the relationship between biodiversity and temperature through time appeared to be the opposite. Our new results reverse these conclusions and bring them into line with the ecological pattern.’

According to lead author Peter Mayhew from the department of biology at York University: ‘The improved data gives us a more secure picture of the impact of warming temperatures on marine biodiversity and they show that, as before, there is more extinction and origination in warm geological periods. But, overall, warm climates seem to boost biodiversity in the very long run, rather than reducing it.’

And there is the sting in the tail –in the very long run. The researchers suggest that the present trends of increasing temperature are unlikely to boost global biodiversity in the short term because of the long timescales necessary for new forms to evolve. Instead the speed of current change is expected to cause a loss in biodiversity.

‘Our results seem to show that temperature improves biodiversity through time as well as across space,’ said Tim Benton, of the biological sciences faculty at Leeds University. ‘However, they do not suggest that current global warming is good for existing species. Increases in global diversity take millions of years, and in the meantime, we expect extinctions to occur.’

With that in mind, while its activities may in the long term may have a positive impact on biodiversity, is the human race actually going to be the instigator of its own demise?

Neil Eisberg – Editor

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