How climate change will affect cherished species like tuatara and takahe - and countless others around the world - urgently needs to be assessed, scientists say.

Changes in global temperatures are already having an impact on the diversity and distribution of living things worldwide; species may be able to adapt and survive these changes, while others may not.

In New Zealand, climate change is particularly important as there are many rare and unique plants and animals, some of which are already under threat from invasive pests and habitat loss.

Using sophisticated mathematical models, scientists can forecast outcomes, but these models are only as good as the available data, say scientists in a new study published in the journal Science today.


The described six key types of biological information, including life history, physiology, genetic variation, species interactions, dispersal and evolution, that will help predict outcomes for individual species.

"New Zealand's strong foundation in ecological research will help," said co-author Dr William Godsoe, a Lincoln University lecturer and investigator in the joint Bio-Protection Research Centre.

"One of our hopes is to build on these strengths and highlight new opportunities to improve predictions by explicitly considering evolution, interactions among species, and dispersal."

This would aid the development of strategies to manage impacts on species and ecosystems before they become critical.

"Right now, we're treating a mouse the same way as an elephant or a fish or a tree," said the study's lead author, Associate Professor Mark Urban from the University of Connecticut.

"Yet we know that those are all very different organisms and they are going to respond to their environment in different ways."

The team have challenged the research community to capture this information.

"We need to pull on our boots, grab our binoculars, and go back into the field to gather these key bits of information if we are going to make realistic predictions," Urban said.


With more than 8.7 million species worldwide, gathering the necessary biological information to improve predictions is a daunting task.

Read more: 10 NZ climate change canaries

Even a sampling of key species would be beneficial, the scientists say, as the more sophisticated models will allow them to extrapolate their predictions and apply them to species with similar traits.

"Our biggest challenge is pinpointing which species to concentrate on and which regions we need to allocate resources," said Urban, who in an earlier paper predicted that as many as one in six species internationally could be wiped out by climate change.

The Department of Conservation has identified several threatened species with limited distributions and low genetic variation that are likely to be affected by climate change, including iconic species, such as tuatara, little spotted kiwi, black robin, takahe, black-eyed gecko and Archey's frog.

The tuatara was of particular concern because the sex of their offspring is determined by temperature, with fewer females being produced at higher temperatures.

The researchers are calling for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to spearhead a global campaign to capture the information needed, and are also encouraging conservation strategies to support biodiversity such as maintaining dispersal corridors, and preserving existing natural habitats and genetic diversity.

Under present projections, average temperatures in New Zealand are expected to rise by several degrees by the end of the century.

The sea level around the country is also expected to rise between 50cm and 100cm this century, leaving populations to adapt by either abandoning coasts and islands, changing infrastructure and coastal zones, or protecting areas with barriers or dykes.

Storms occurring on top of a higher sea level would affect public infrastructure such as roads, railways and stormwater systems, as well as private homes and other buildings.

Climate change was also expected to result in more large storms compounding the effects of sea level rise.

New Zealand - which had a 23 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2014 - has pledged to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.