Flying into trouble? 

Climate change is happening at a frightful pace, driving ecosystems well beyond their limits and our collective failure to act is  having  disastrous consequences. Our ever-changing climate is lessening nature’s ability to survive, let alone thrive, increasing the risk of extinction of habitats and wildlife across the world. But there is hope. We know that when given the chance, nature and habitats can recover and even flourish.  

A recent ZSL-led study shows how our latest knowledge of climate change threats must be better connected with conservation action if we are to successfully protect at-risk species – in this instance, seabirds.

Seabirds such as kittiwakes and puffins are being put at higher risk from a disconnection between conservation efforts on the ground, and research on climate change threats. However, ZSL’s new study shows that better integration of the two is possible to safeguard biodiversity.

Seabirds represent one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world with almost half of all species in decline. They are threatened by climate change, with extreme weather events such as heatwaves and powerful storms, and changes in food availability in response to changing climatic conditions, putting increasing pressure on the birds.

Climate change threats, highlighted by European seabird conservation groups, are often poorly understood, and there are several threats highlighted by researchers and conservation groups without clear conservation actions in response. In fact, this study showed that almost a third (29%) of possible conservation interventions aimed at reducing the impacts of climate change, are linked to conflicting evidence or a lack of information to make solid conclusions about how effective they are.

Leading conservation experts working on the study, including ZSL, Cambridge University, BirdLife International, RSPB and the IUCN Climate Change Specialist Group, say that stronger integration is possible and propose a framework to link research and management that could also be applied to other species too.

Lead author and ZSL post-doctoral fellow, Henry Hakkinen said: “There is a real opportunity here to identify missing information and marry existing research on the risks of climate change with effective conservation and wildlife management.”

“Through our work we have identified several climate change threats and conservation actions which are well understood. Seabirds in Europe are heavily researched and receive quite a lot of conservation attention. They are also heavily impacted by climate change, so are a good species group to start with. These gaps urgently need addressing if we want to work out how we can best help seabirds adapt to climate change and survive.”

Sea birds, source ZSL

A series of surveys were sent to more than 180 seabird conservation practitioners across Western Europe. The team identified major knowledge gaps and began tallying up some of the ways in which conservation action could address some of the major threats posed to the species by climate change.

For example, 45% of those surveyed said that disease risk from climate change was a serious threat to seabird populations, but the study unveiled that more needed to be done to monitor the effectiveness of conservation tools available to practitioners to address this. Hand rearing and vaccinations are suggested tools that could help with the issue.

Threats from temperature extremes, storms and habitat alteration due to climate change can have a detrimental effect on seabirds, leading, for example, to reduced food availability and fewer nesting sites. Artificial nests, translocations and protective barriers for nests were proposed as possible solutions. However, while some of these interventions are known to be effective, important knowledge gaps remain.

Our understanding of and the testing of practical responses for protecting biodiversity are lagging behind the rate of climate change. This must change if we are to make substantive improvements and seabirds are an urgent example.

We need action evidence-based approaches and to make decisions based on the best available evidence to safeguard biodiversity. Bridging climate change research and conservation action has never been more important.

Frameworks which link pressures on the environment, their effect on biodiversity and ways society can respond, are often used in global policy making to translate research to action. This paper suggests that the ‘pressure-state-response framework’ could be applied to specific groups of species or ecosystems to identify existing gaps between research and conservation solutions for wildlife most at risk.

Sea birds

ZSL Senior Research Fellow and senior author, Dr Nathalie Pettorelli said: “We need to get better at connecting climate change research and evidence of intervention effectiveness if we are to optimise opportunities to safeguard a future for the species most at risk. Our study provides an easily transferable approach for identifying missing information and areas where connections between research and management need to be tightened to improve conservation outcomes.”

As we prepare for the long-awaited COP15 conference this year, joined up thinking is more important than ever.

ZSL  is working to put nature at the heart of  decision making,  prioritise  biodiversity  loss and  recognise  its interconnections with other environmental issues such as climate change.

You can support ZSL global science and conservation work by donating at


James Wren is the ZSL Executive Director of Fundraising and Engagement.