Assessing the vulnerability of an assemblage of subtropical rainforest vertebrate species to climate change in south-east Queensland

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Abstract

Global climate change is a threat to ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity and endemism, such as the World Heritage-listed subtropical rainforests of central eastern Australia. Possible effects of climate change on the biota of tropical rainforests have been studied, but subtropical rainforests have received less attention. We analysed published data for an assemblage of 38 subtropical rainforest vertebrate species in four taxonomic groups to evaluate their relative vulnerability to climate change. Focusing on endemic and/or threatened species, we considered two aspects of vulnerability: (i) resistance, defined by indicators of rarity (geographical range, habitat specificity and local abundance); and (ii) resilience, defined by indicators of a species potential to recover (reproductive output, dispersal potential and climatic niche). Our analysis indicated that frogs are most vulnerable to climate change, followed by reptiles, birds, then mammals. Many species in our assemblage are regionally endemic montane rainforest specialists with high vulnerability. Monitoring of taxa in regenerating rainforest showed that many species with high resilience traits also persisted in disturbed habitat, suggesting that they have capacity to recolonize habitats after disturbance, that is climate change-induced events. These results will allow us to prioritize adaptation strategies for species most at risk. We conclude that to safeguard the most vulnerable amphibian, reptile and bird species against climate change, climatically stable habitats (cool refugia) that are currently without protection status need to be identified, restored and incorporated in the current reserve system. Our study provides evidence that montane subtropical rainforest deserves highest protection status as habitat for vulnerable taxa.

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