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Cetacean range and climate in the eastern North Atlantic: future predictions and implications for conservation



There is increasing evidence that the distributions of a large number of species are shifting with global climate change as they track changing surface temperatures that define their thermal niche. Modelling efforts to predict species distributions under future climates have increased with concern about the overall impact of these distribution shifts on species ecology, and especially where barriers to dispersal exist. Here we apply a bio-climatic envelope modelling technique to investigate the impacts of climate change on the geographic range of ten cetacean species in the eastern North Atlantic and to assess how such modelling can be used to inform conservation and management. The modelling process integrates elements of a species' habitat and thermal niche, and employs “hindcasting” of historical distribution changes in order to verify the accuracy of the modelled relationship between temperature and species range. If this ability is not verified, there is a risk that inappropriate or inaccurate models will be used to make future predictions of species distributions. Of the ten species investigated, we found that while the models for nine could successfully explain current spatial distribution, only four had a good ability to predict distribution changes over time in response to changes in water temperature. Applied to future climate scenarios, the four species-specific models with good predictive abilities indicated range expansion in one species and range contraction in three others, including the potential loss of up to 80% of suitable white-beaked dolphin habitat. Model predictions allow identification of affected areas and the likely time-scales over which impacts will occur. Thus, this work provides important information on both our ability to predict how individual species will respond to future climate change and the applicability of predictive distribution models as a tool to help construct viable conservation and management strategies.

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