• Climate change;
  • conservation;
  • disturbance;
  • habitat;
  • microclimate;
  • palaeobiology;
  • phylogeography;
  • refuges;
  • refugia;
  • species distribution models


Aim  Identifying and protecting refugia is a priority for conservation under projected anthropogenic climate change, because of their demonstrated ability to facilitate the survival of biota under adverse conditions. Refugia are habitats that components of biodiversity retreat to, persist in and can potentially expand from under changing environmental conditions. However, the study and discussion of refugia has often been ad hoc and descriptive in nature. We therefore: (1) provide a habitat-based concept of refugia, and (2) evaluate methods for the identification of refugia.

Location  Global.

Methods  We present a simple conceptual framework for refugia and examine the factors that describe them. We then demonstrate how different disciplines are contributing to our understanding of refugia, and the tools that they provide for identifying and quantifying refugia.

Results  Current understanding of refugia is largely based on Quaternary phylogeographic studies on organisms in North America and Europe during significant temperature fluctuations. This has resulted in gaps in our understanding of refugia, particularly when attempting to apply current theory to forecast anthropogenic climate change. Refugia are environmental habitats with space and time dimensions that operate on evolutionary time-scales and have facilitated the survival of biota under changing environmental conditions for millennia. Therefore, they offer the best chances for survival under climate change for many taxa, making their identification important for conservation under anthropogenic climate change. Several methods from various disciplines provide viable options for achieving this goal.

Main conclusions  The framework developed for refugia allows the identification and description of refugia in any environment. Various methods provide important contributions but each is limited in scope; urging a more integrated approach to identify, define and conserve refugia. Such an approach will facilitate better understanding of refugia and their capacity to act as safe havens under projected anthropogenic climate change.