The theory behind, and the challenges of, conserving nature's stage in a time of rapid change

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Lawler, Joshua J., Ackerly, David D., Albano, Christine M., Anderson, Mark G., Dobrowski, Solomon Z., Gill, Jacquelyn L., Heller, Nicole E., Pressey, Robert L., Sanderson, Eric W., and Weiss, Stuart B.
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Most conservation planning to date has focused on protecting today's biodiversity with the assumption that it will be tomorrow's biodiversity. However, modern climate change has already resulted in distributional shifts of some species and is projected to result in many more shifts in the coming decades. As species redistribute and biotic communities reorganize, conservation plans based on current patterns of biodiversity may fail to adequately protect species in the future. One approach for addressing this issue is to focus on conserving a range of abiotic conditions in the conservation-planning process. By doing so, it may be possible to conserve an abiotically diverse “stage” upon which evolution will play out and support many actors (biodiversity). We reviewed the fundamental underpinnings of the concept of conserving the abiotic stage, starting with the early observations of von Humboldt, who mapped the concordance of abiotic conditions and vegetation, and progressing to the concept of the ecological niche. We discuss challenges posed by issues of spatial and temporal scale, the role of biotic drivers of species distributions, and latitudinal and topographic variation in relationships between climate and landform. For example, abiotic conditions are not static, but change through time—albeit at different and often relatively slow rates. In some places, biotic interactions play a substantial role in structuring patterns of biodiversity, meaning that patterns of biodiversity may be less tightly linked to the abiotic stage. Furthermore, abiotic drivers of biodiversity can change with latitude and topographic position, meaning that the abiotic stage may need to be defined differently in different places. We conclude that protecting a diversity of abiotic conditions will likely best conserve biodiversity into the future in places where abiotic drivers of species distributions are strong relative to biotic drivers, where the diversity of abiotic settings will be conserved through time, and where connectivity allows for movement among areas providing different abiotic conditions.


Lawler, J. J., D. D. Ackerly, C. M. Albano, M. G. Anderson, S. Z. Dobrowski, J. L. Gill, N. E. Heller, R. L. Pressey, E. W. Sanderson, and S. B. Weiss. 2015. The theory behind, and the challenges of, conserving nature’s stage in a time of rapid change. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12505