Protected areas act as a buffer against detrimental effects of climate change—Evidence from large-scale, long-term abundance data

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Climate change is driving species to shift their distributions toward high altitudes and latitudes, while habitat loss and fragmentation may hamper species ability to follow their climatic envelope. These two drivers of change may act in synergy, with particularly disastrous impacts on biodiversity. Protected areas, PAs, may thus represent crucial buffers against the compounded effects of climate change and habitat loss. However, large-scale studies assessing the performance of PAs as such buffers remain scarce and are largely based on species occurrence data. Conversely, abundance data have proven to be more reliable for addressing changes in wildlife populations under climate change. We evaluated changes in bird abundance from the 1970s–80s to the 2000s inside and outside PAs at the trailing range edge of 30 northern bird species and at the leading range edge of 70 southern species. Abundances of retracting northern species were higher and declined less inside PAs at their trailing range edge. The positive effect of PAs on bird abundances was particularly marked in northern species that rely strongly on PAs, that is, their density distribution is largely confined within PAs. These species were nearly absent outside PAs in the 2000s. The abundances of southern species were in general lower inside PAs and increased less from the 70s–80s to 2000s. Nonetheless, species with high reliance on PAs had much higher abundances inside than outside PAs in the 2000s. These results show that PAs are essential in mitigating the retraction of northern species, but also facilitate northward expansions of southern species highly reliant on PAs. Our study provides empirical evidence documenting the role of PAs in facilitating species to adjust to rapidly changing climatic conditions, thereby contributing to the mitigation of impending biodiversity loss. PAs may thus allow time for initiating wider conservation programs on currently unprotected land.


  • Petteri Lehikoinen
  • Andrea Santangeli
  • Kim Jaatinen
  • Ari Rajasärkkä
  • Aleksi Lehikoinen
External organisations
  • University of Helsinki
  • Nature and Game Management Trust Finland
  • National Parks Finland
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Ecology


  • conservation biology, distribution area, global warming, habitat management, land use changes, monitoring
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)304-313
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number1
Early online date2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Jan
Publication categoryResearch