Ecological time lags and the journey towards conservation success

Kevin Watts*, Robin C. Whytock, Kirsty J. Park, Elisa Fuentes-Montemayor, Nicholas A. Macgregor, Simon Duffield, Philip J.K. McGowan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)


Global conservation targets to reverse biodiversity declines and halt species extinctions are not being met despite decades of conservation action. However, a lack of measurable change in biodiversity indicators towards these targets is not necessarily a sign that conservation has failed; instead, temporal lags in species’ responses to conservation action could be masking our ability to observe progress towards conservation success. Here we present our perspective on the influence of ecological time lags on the assessment of conservation success and review the principles of time lags and their ecological drivers. We illustrate how a number of conceptual species may respond to change in a theoretical landscape and evaluate how these responses might influence our interpretation of conservation success. We then investigate a time lag in a real biodiversity indicator using empirical data and explore alternative approaches to understand the mechanisms that drive time lags. Our proposal for setting and evaluating conservation targets is to use milestones, or interim targets linked to specific ecological mechanisms at key points in time, to assess whether conservation actions are likely to be working. Accounting for ecological time lags in biodiversity targets and indicators will greatly improve the way that we evaluate conservation successes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)304-311
Number of pages8
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Issue number3
Early online date27 Jan 2020
Publication statusPrint publication - Mar 2020
Externally publishedYes


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