Conservation efforts are traditionally focused on species diversity, without any explicit consideration of the underlying processes that generated (and maintained in time) that same diversity. In a global change context, conservation efforts should focus on conserving evolutionary patterns that generate the biodiversity we observe today. Focusing on the identification (and protection) of the intraspecific genetic diversity hotspots is one of the few options available to ensure the evolvability of species in a rapidly changing world.
Focusing on terrestrial vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles and mammals) endemic to the Italian peninsula, for 23 different evolutionary lineages, we (1) modeled the current and future distribution using an ensemble forecasting approach; (2),calculated intra-specific genetic diversity using different genetic markers (mitochondrial and nuclear DNA) and modeled its spatial explicit distribution; (3) identified multispecies diversity hotspots; (4) evaluated the extent to which the existing network of Protected Areas (PAs) covers these hotspots now and in the near future (2100), considering different emission scenarios (one optimistic and one pessimistic).
The main hotspots of genetic diversity are all located in the southern part of the Italian peninsula. Many of these hotspots are not covered by any existing PA, even though they are often nearby. Our results clearly show that the existing PAs network does not provide an effective protection of genetic diversity, and the situation will be even worse considering future scenarios of climate change. Currently around 20% of the genetic diversity hotspots are protected by existing PAs; in the near future this percentage decreases both in the optimistic and pessimistic scenario.
Due to climate change, the decreasing of genetic hotspots and the decreasing of their protection by PAs in the near future could cause the loss of the evolutionary potential of these lineages. This could increase their rate of extinction with the loss of important evolutionary processes. Both climate change and human impact are modifying different levels of biodiversity (genetic, species and ecosystem) with the consequences not only on species and habitats but even on human well-being.