GBIF enables global study of climate impact on species

Research published in Nature Climate Change uses records on nearly 50,000 species accessed through GBIF to forecast major reductions in the climate ranges of common plants and animals around the world.

GBIF-mediated data resources used : Records on 48,786 species accessed
Maps showing species richness in the 2080s.

Maps showing species richness in the 2080s.

Climate change could dramatically reduce the geographic ranges of thousands of common plant and animal species during this century, according to research using data made freely available online through GBIF. 

Research published online in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at nearly 50,000 globally widespread and common species and found that more than half of the plants and over a third of animal species could lose more than half of their climatic range by 2080 if nothing is done to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

However, acting quickly to mitigate climate change could reduce losses by 60 per cent and buy an additional 40 years for species to adapt, the research concludes.

The study, by researchers in the United Kingdom, Australia and Colombia, defined the climate ‘niche’ occupied by each species, based on temperature and rainfall where they live now, and mapped the areas that would remain suitable for them according to various scenarios of future climate change.

The information on the current location of common species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians was taken from around 170 million individual data records published freely online through GBIF by some 200 different institutions around the world. The records include museum specimens, data from scientific expeditions and the observations of thousands of volunteer ‘citizen scientists’.

One of the co-authors of the study, Jeff Price of the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, United Kingdom, said: "Without free and open access to massive amounts of data such as those made available online through GBIF, no individual researcher is able to contact every country, every museum, every scientist holding the data and pull it all together. So this research would not be possible without GBIF and its global community of researchers and volunteers who make their data freely available."

According to the research, plants, reptiles and especially amphibians are expected to be at highest risk from climate change. The climate will become especially unsuitable for both plant and animal species in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Amazonia and Australia. A major loss of plant species is also projected for North Africa, Central Asia and South-eastern Europe.

The lead author of the study, Dr Rachel Warren, also from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and the Tyndall Centre, said:“While there has been much research on the effect of climate change on rare and endangered species, little has been known about how an increase in global temperature will affect more common species. 

“This broader issue of potential range loss in widespread species is a serious concern as even small declines in these species can significantly disrupt ecosystems.

“Our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides.

 “The good news is that our research provides crucial new evidence of how swift action to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases can prevent the biodiversity loss by reducing the amount of global warming to 2 degrees Celsius rather than 4 degrees. This would also buy time – up to four decades - for plants and animals to adapt to the remaining 2 degrees of climate change.”

Warren, R. et al., 2013. Quantifying the benefit of early climate change mitigation in avoiding biodiversity loss. Nature Clim. Change, advance online publication. Available at: