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Adaptive Capacity: The Linchpin for Understanding and Addressing Species Vulnerability to Climate Change Impacts


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Different species have different ways of coping with changing climate conditions. Some species may move to more-favorable habitats, others may change their behavior (such as by shifting their diets), and still others may change the timing of life-cycle events (such as migration). The ability of a species to accommodate changing conditions is known as its “adaptive capacity”. Understanding the adaptive capacity of different species is a critical component of identifying which species are most vulnerable to climate change, and can ultimately inform the prioritization of conservation efforts. The goal of this project is to create a framework providing natural resource managers with a means of assessing the ability of species to cope [...]

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Principal Investigator :
Erik A Beever
Funding Agency :
CMS Group :
Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASC) Program

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Elements that contribute to adaptive capacity include dispersal and colonization, phenotypic and behavioral flexibility, and evolutionary capacity. For example, in response to environmental change, species with greater adaptive capacity can move to or colonize more favorable habitats, can change their behavior or the timing of their life-cycle events, or can evolve over time tend to exhibit higher adaptive capacity. These coping mechanisms vary among species, so understanding and considering adaptive capacity can help managers determine which species within an ecosystem are most likely to be vulnerable to – and impacted by – climate change. This will improve the value of vulnerability assessments, help resource managers prioritize the conservation of species and habitats, and improve the efficacy of natural resource management activities designed to enhance adaptation to climate change. This multi-year collaboration among partners including USGS, USFWS, NPS, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the National Research Council will (1) identify and categorize traits and behaviors of organisms that contribute to adaptive capacity, (2) summarize the taxonomic, climatic, biogeographic, and/or disturbance context that affects the expression of adaptive capacity, (3) synthesize our understanding of how adaptive capacity has controlled the response of species already exposed to climate change, (4) highlight how an understanding of adaptive capacity can be used for natural resource management and conservation activities, (5) identify climate-adaptation management actions that may facilitate or increase adaptive capacity, (6) outline crucial information and research needs related to understanding adaptive capacity, (7) establish the research agenda needed to better understand adaptive capacity. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a framework that natural-resource managers and other conservation practitioners can use to assess the likely adaptive capacity of species, to help improve effectiveness of conservation planning and resource management in a changing climate.

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projectStatusIn Progress

American Pika, public domain
American Pika, public domain


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  • National CASC
  • National and Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers

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