Biodiversity loss under existing land use and climate change: an illustration using northern South America


  • Paul A. T. Higgins

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA,
    2. University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.
      *Correspondence: Paul A. T. Higgins, Senior Policy Fellow, American Meteorological Society, 1120 G Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20005, USA. E-mail:
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*Correspondence: Paul A. T. Higgins, Senior Policy Fellow, American Meteorological Society, 1120 G Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20005, USA. E-mail:


Aim  Species richness depends on climate and land use. Maintaining locations with favourable climate and land-use patterns is critical for protecting biodiversity because the loss of either can reduce the species richness that an area supports. Currently, the Guiana Shield (GS) receives abundant precipitation and has relatively light land use. For species richness this constitutes a good–good combination of climate and land use, respectively. In contrast, much of eastern Brazil receives low levels of precipitation and has heavy land use, which is a bad–bad combination for species richness. Thus, the current distribution of precipitation and land use in northern South America is relatively favourable for biodiversity. Palaeoclimate and model studies suggest, however, that the precipitation patterns for the two regions have switched before and could switch in response to greenhouse gas emissions. This paper examines the potential consequences of reconfiguring climate with respect to existing land-use patterns using South America as an example.

Location  South America north of 20° S and east of the Andes.

Methods  Ecosystem structure and function are modelled under (1) historical climate and (2) altered precipitation following a shift in the location of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The distribution of precipitation, biomes, net primary productivity (NPP) and land use are then used to predict levels of species richness under the two climate scenarios.

Results  Climate changes could shift the distribution of vegetation and NPP such that conditions favourable for species richness in the GS region disappear. If land-use patterns were not prohibitive in eastern Brazil, the improved climate conditions there could compensate for the GS loss (assuming migratory barriers are overcome). Instead, existing land-use patterns cause the combined species richness projected for the two regions to plummet.

Main conclusions  Human activities will alter current configurations of land use and climate throughout the world. For species richness, new configurations are likely to include both positive and negative combinations of climate and land use. However, the irreversibility of past extinctions due to land-use patterns loads the dice against species richness.