The fate of protected areas in tropical ecosystems of the Americas


There have been many recent studies trying to gauge how climate change will affect protected areas in numerous regions around the globe, including in Europe, in Africa, and in marine ecosystems.  Less is known about how protected areas will fare in the tropics of Central and South America, where planning for landscape connectivity is a challenge due to high species richness and limited knowledge about dispersal.  As warming temperatures lead to latitudinal and elevational shifts in habitats, protected areas must stay connected in order to stay relevant.  Two new studies add to consensus that corridors are critical in maintaining connectivity as the landscape changes in the future.

The first study, by Fung et al., looks at the protected area network in Costa Rica, which is part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.  It found that less than 1/4 of the phytogeographic units in the region would have future areas in current protected areas and would meet conservation goals, while almost 1/3 of these units would completely disappear under climate change.  In order to increase biodiversity representation under climate change, Costa Rica would need to plan for an 11% increase in new conservation areas and a 5% increase in biological corridors

Similar results are found by Feeley and Silman in looking at the Amazonian forests of South America.  Although parks and other protected areas represent the best safeguard for biodiversity against deforestation, they are less effective against climate change.  The authors calculated that, depending the rate of warming and degree of connectivity between protected areas, only 1/3 to 4/5 of protected habitats would have temperature analogs in the future.  This amount may ultimately end up being much lower, due to the additional effects of human disturbance and habitat degradation.

The main message: a protected area network won’t be effective in the future if nothing can reach the protected areas.  The impacts of climate change can only be mitigated as long as connectivity is maintained as habitats shift.  Protected areas are critical, but the pathways linking them are just as important.


Fung, E., P. Imbach, L. Corrales, S. Vilchez, N. Zamora, F. Argotty, L. Hannah, and Z. Ramos. 2016. Mapping conservation priorities and connectivity pathways under climate change for tropical ecosystems. Climatic Change. DOI:10.1007/s10584-016-1789-8.

Feeley, K. J. and M. R. Silman. 2016. Disappearing climates will limit the efficacy of Amazonian protected areas. Diversity and Distributions 22(11): 1081-1084.

2017-03-19T23:28:12+00:00 November 10th, 2016|

About the Author:

Heather Cayton
Heather Cayton is the Managing Director of and a Research Assistant at Michigan State University. She received her B.S. from the University of Virginia and her M.S. from Virginia Tech, and has spent the past nine years studying corridors and rare butterflies in North Carolina.