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Management for network diversity speeds evolutionary adaptation to climate change


Ecosystems around the world are reorganizing due to climate change1, motivating management responses to facilitate species persistence and maintain ecological functions. Spatial management actions are generally undertaken to relieve local stressors on populations and have recently been suggested as an approach to facilitate species range shifts, provide refugia and enhance resilience to climate change2,3. Efforts to identify which habitats to protect, however, typically assume that organisms do not evolve in response to shifting environmental conditions4,5 despite growing evidence that rapid evolutionary responses occur under new selective regimes in the wild6,7. It is not clear whether conservation strategies would be different if evolutionary dynamics were considered during conservation planning. Here, we show that evolutionary responses fundamentally change recommendations for conservation actions. With spatially explicit simulations of a simple three-species coral reef ecosystem, we show that the preferred management strategies changed from those focusing on thermal refugia when evolutionary capacity was absent to those prioritizing trait and habitat diversity or high cover when adaptive evolution was possible. Prioritizing habitat diversity protects heat resistant populations and protects cooler refuges and the stepping stones between them. The protection of habitat heterogeneity and connectivity also produced substantially larger benefits outside reserves than refugia-based strategies, providing conservation planners an opportunity to facilitate adaptation to ongoing and unpredictable change.

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Data availability

The simulated datasets generated during this study are available from https://github.com/pinskylab/ecoevo_coral.

Code availability

The R code used to generate the simulated datasets is available from https://github.com/pinskylab/ecoevo_coral.


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We thank the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for their generous funding and support of this research. S. Eminhizer provided valuable project support. A. Stier provided valuable discussions during early model development. Members of the Schindler Lab at the University of Washington and the Pinsky Lab at Rutgers University provided helpful feedback during model and manuscript development.

Author information

T.E.W., D.E.S., M.A.C., M.S.W. and M.L.P. conceived the study. T.E.W., D.E.S., M.A.C., M.S.W., S.R.P., P.J.M., T.E.E. and M.L.P. designed the experiments. T.E.W. developed the models and ran the analyses. T.E.W., D.E.S., M.A.C., M.S.W., S.R.P., P.J.M., T.E.E. and M.L.P. interpreted the results. T.E.W., D.E.S., M.A.C., M.S.W., S.R.P., P.J.M., T.E.E. and M.L.P. wrote and/or substantively revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to Timothy E. Walsworth.

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Peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Curry Cunningham, Jon Norberg and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Figs. 1–3.

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Fig. 1: Evolutionary capacity improves long-term coral cover when faced with climate change.
Fig. 2: Average cover of corals inside protected reserves relative to outside protected reserves across the duration of simulations.
Fig. 3: The presence of evolution alters which conservation strategies perform best.