Australia’s iconic eucalypt trees could be in decline within one generation, according to new international research involving a University of Queensland researcher.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, paint a stark picture with the habitat of more than 90 per cent of eucalypt species set to decline, and 16 species forecast to lose their home environments entirely within 60 years, due to climate change.

Dr Nathalie Butt, an ARC Early Career Research Fellow in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, said changes were likely to be more drastic under severe climate change scenarios.

“Some predicted effects can be reduced if we manage to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

Report co-author Associate Professor Bernd Gruber of the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology said the study was the first to examine the impact of climate change on the distribution of a large group of closely related tree species on a continental scale.

“This study demonstrates the importance of not simply counting the number of species in biodiversity conservation, but also considering their evolutionary history, which determines how closely related species are to each other,” Dr Gruber said.

“Using this approach we were able to identify hotspots that will contain high levels of eucalypt diversity under a changing climate, both in terms of the number of species and their reflection of the trees’ evolutionary pathways.

“Protecting these hotspots will be important to ensure we retain biodiversity in the future.

“We predict that a three degree rise in temperature over the next 60 years would see a decline of suitable habitat for 91 per cent of the 657 species of eucalypts we studied.

“As a consequence, the distribution of many species will change, and we expect trees suited to temperate and southern Australia to be hit particularly hard, contracting to more climatically suitable areas further south or at higher elevations,” he said.

“At least 16 species would have suitable climatic zones disappear altogether.”

The research found that rare, evolutionarily ancient trees which have existed for a long time would feel the brunt of climate change.

“There will be a cascading effect on biodiversity, but the impact of climate change will certainly be felt by most of these iconic tree species,” he said.

“Our analysis suggests that only nine per cent of eucalypt species have the potential to increase their distribution over the same time period.”

The study was made possible via close collaboration with Australian and international scientists including experts from UQ, the University of Canberra; Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation- Corpoica; National Research Collections of Australia – CSIRO; University of California, Berkeley; Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble, France; National Science Foundation in the US; University of Melbourne; University of New South Wales; The Australian National University; James Cook University; Macquarie University; Griffith University; and the Australian Museum.

Media: Nathalie Butt n.butt@uq.edu.au

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