Biogeography and conservation in Southeast Asia: how 2.7 million years of repeated environmental fluctuations affect today’s patterns and the future of the remaining refugial-phase biodiversity
Climate Change, Environmental refugees, Hotspots, Mekong River, Paleogeography, Pleistocene, Rainforest, Refugia, Sea levels, Species ranges, Sundaland
Understanding the historical biogeography of this global biodiversity hotspot is as important to long-term conservation goals as ecology and evolution are to understanding current patterns and processes. Today’s geography is, however, misleading and typical of only ~2% of the last million years; >90% of that time the region’s land area was 1.5–2.0 times larger as mean sea levels were 62 m below today’s, climates were cooler, and extensive forests and savanna covered the emerged Sunda plains. The region’s land area varied two-fold as sea levels fluctuated up to ±50 m with each of ~50 Pleistocene glacial cycles, and forests expanded and contracted with oscillations in land area and seasonality. This dynamic geographic history is relevant to the development of biogeographic regionalism and shows that it is today’s forests that are refugial, not those of the Last Glacial Maximum. This history affects how species will adapt or shift their ranges in response to global warming and further decreases in land area (submergence of low-lying coastal areas) during the 21st century. The alternative is mass species extinction. The biota is also threatened by the continued destruction of forest, destruction of Mekong River flood-pulse based ecosystems, and continued human population growth. Human biogeography will become more important in conservation planning as tens of millions of people who depend on protected area forests, riverine ecosystems, and coastal habitats become environmental refugees. Conservation scientists need to become more involved in regional ecological education, environmental stewardship, and ecosystem-based adaptation to sustain as much as possible of this rich biota and the ecological services it provides.