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Conservation of the Australian Wet Tropics

Our collaborative research offers valuable insights into how history (both pattern and process) may inform future conservation strategies in the Australian Wet Tropics (AWT) World Heritage Area. Knowledge of demographic and spatial responses to past climate change in relation to current ecological properties should help to refine predictions of future response, and thereby help to target monitoring and conservation efforts to protect unique biodiversity. Several salient themes for the conservation-minded, taken from previous evolutionary research, include the following: 1) the significance of protecting both historically isolated lineages (ESUs) and contiguous environmental gradients to maintain population viability and adaptive genetic diversity (Moritz 2002), 2) the efficiency of using persistent historical refugia within taxa as a surrogate for predicting phylogenetic diversity within another taxa, relates to vagility and/or degree of specialisation (e.g. low vagility snails predict vertebrate clade distributions, but not vice versa)(Hugall et al. 2002) 3) the geographic scale of taxonomic response to shared history of climate-driven habitat change varies significantly (Moritz et al. 2004).

Recent analyses based on bioclimatic distribution modeling suggest climate change is potentially a greater threat than habitat loss to biodiversity in the AWT and analogous rainforest systems (Thomas et al. 2003). The AWT is particularly sensitive to climate change for two reasons: (i) its biogeographic and evolutionary history has resulted in an endemic fauna that is mainly adapted to a cool (upland), wet and relatively aseasonal environment; and (ii) it is dominated by steep elevational gradients across which impacts of increasing temperatures should be most noticeable (Nix 1991, Williams et al. 1996). It is of great concern that montane rainforests in several of the ancient refugia and areas of highest conservation value (Moritz et al. 2001; Moritz & McDonald, in press) are predicted to contract markedly under scenarios of slight (1 C) warming (Hilbert et al. 2001). Indeed, Williams et al. (2003) suggested that the endemic vertebrates would, on average, lose ~35% of their current distribution area with a 1 C rise and could suffer 50% extinction if the temperature rises by 3.5 C, a midrange prediction under the IPCC scenarios. Future research will focus on developing a better understanding of how lineage-specific ecology predicts responses to historical rainforest contractions.




Craig Moritz Research Group - Home

Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
Department of Integrative Biology
University of California, Berkeley