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Potential impact of climatic change on the distribution of forest herbs in Europe

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The aim of this study is to evaluate the possible consequences of climate change on a representative sample of forest herbs in Europe. A fuzzy climatic envelope was used to predict the location of suitable climatic conditions under two climatic change scenarios. Expected consequences in terms of lost and gained range size and shift in distribution for 26 forest herbs were estimated. These results were combined in an Index of Predicted Range Change for each species. Finally, the effects of habitat fragmentation for potential dispersal routes were evaluated and options for management on a European scale are discussed.

Generally, a good agreement of the estimated suitability under the present climate and the observed current distribution was observed. However, species vary a lot in the degree to which they occupy the presently climatically suitable areas in Europe. Many species are absent from large areas with suitable climate and thus could be said to have poor range-filling capacity.

A general change in location (range centroid) of the total suitable area was observed: The total suitable area will on average move strongly northwards and moderately eastwards under the relatively mild B1 scenario and more strongly so under the A2 scenario. The required average minimum migration rate per year to track the potential range shift is 2.1 km under the B1 scenario and 3.9 km under the A2 scenario.

Moderate losses in the total suitable area in Europe are predicted for most species under both scenarios. However, the predicted changes are very variable, with one species (Actaea erythrocarpa) experiencing total range elimination in Europe (A2 scenario) while the total suitable area is predicted to show large increases for other species. The species that are predicted to experience the greatest proportional losses in their climatically suitable area within their presently realised range tend to have northern or eastern range centroids.

The Index of Predicted Range Change roughly divides the species studied in four groups: One species face a high risk of extinction; eight species are expected to experience moderate to severe threat of extinction; 11 species are not considered at risk and, finally, six species may actually benefit from global warming.

An analysis of potential migration routes shows the importance of maintaining and, if possible, improving the network of forest throughout Europe to make migration possible. It is also suggested to closely monitor the status of boreal and subalpine species that are most threatened by global warming. Finally it is recommended that special concern should be given to increased protection and restoration of forest habitats in southern montane areas for their crucial long-term importance for the maintenance of European plant diversity.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2004

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