When it comes to species being vulnerable to climate change, many people think of polar bears – or other species that are highly specialised to local conditions. A lot of research has been done, for example, on mountain top endemics – species reliant on cool, misty mountains that could lose that habitat with rising temperatures. Fewer people are thinking about widespread, generalist, common species – why would they be of concern?
Many birds in the Australian tropical savannas are widespread generalists; this is probably because they are adapted to highly variable conditions, and need to continually travel about to find the next source of food – usually flowering trees or high insect abundance after recent rainfall. These food sources might get increasingly far apart, or increasingly thin on the ground, if conditions get tougher with climate change. So these widespread generalist species might be more vulnerable to climate change than expected.
I investigated the vulnerability of a suite of 243 tropical savanna birds species to climate change by incorporating a range of different factors: their sensitivity to fire and in particular late dry season fire, dietary breadth, range size, abundance and range size. I also incorporated the amount of suitable climate space each species was likely to have by 2085 under a severe climate change scenario.
I found that many savanna bird species restricted to Cape York are particularly vulnerable to climate change – including the already endangered species golden-shouldered parrot and buff-breasted buttonquail. However some species that occur across the northern savannas might actually benefit from climate change, if the rainfall changes as the projections indicate. We will have to keep monitoring, particularly those that are already declining and those likely to be severely impacted by climate change, with plans of how to act to intervene as necessary. Oh, and mitigate, of course!