An international group of top biologists led by UConn ecologist Mark Urban is calling for a coordinated effort to gather important species information that is urgently needed to improve predictions for the impact of climate change on future biodiversity.
We need to pull on our boots, grab our binoculars, and go back into the field to gather more detailed information if we are going to make realistic predictions. — Mark Urban
Current prediction models fail to account for important biological factors like species competition and movement that can have a profound influence on whether a plant or animal survives changes to its environment, the scientists say in the Sept. 9 issue of the journal Science. While more sophisticated forecasting models exist, much of the detailed species information that is needed to improve predictions is lacking.
“Right now, we’re treating a mouse the same way as an elephant or a fish or a tree. Yet we know that those are all very different organisms and they are going to respond to their environment in different ways,” says Urban, the Science article’s lead author. “We need to pull on our boots, grab our binoculars, and go back into the field to gather more detailed information if we are going to make realistic predictions.”
The 22 biologists affiliated with the article identify six key types of biological information: life history, physiology, genetic variation, species interactions, dispersal, and response to environmental changes that will significantly improve prediction outcomes for individual species. Obtaining that information will not only help the scientific community better identify the most at-risk populations and ecosystems, the scientists say, it will also allow for a more targeted distribution of resources as global temperatures continue to rise at a record pace.
Current climate change predictions for biodiversity draw on broad statistical correlations and can vary widely, making it difficult for policymakers and others to respond accordingly. Many of those predictions tend not to hold up over time if they fail to account for the full range of biological factors that can influence an organism’s survival rate: species demographics, competition from other organisms, species mobility, and the capacity to adapt and evolve.
“We haven’t been able to sufficiently determine what species composition future ecosystems will have,” says co-author Karin Johst of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. “This is because current ecological models often do not include important biological processes and mechanisms: so far only 23 percent of the reviewed studies have taken into account biological mechanisms.”
Generating more accurate predictions is essential for global conservation efforts. Many species are already moving to higher ground or toward the poles to seek cooler temperatures as global temperatures rise. But the capacity of different organisms to survive varies greatly. Some species of frog, for instance, can traverse their terrain for miles to remain in a habitable environment. Other species, such as some types of salamander, are less mobile and are capable of moving only a few meters over generations.
“New Zealand’s strong foundation in ecological research will help,” explains study co-author William Godsoe, a Lincoln University lecturer and member of New Zealand’s Bio-Protection Research Centre. “One of our hopes is to build on these strengths and highlight new opportunities to improve predictions by explicitly considering evolution, interactions among species, and dispersal.” This will aid in the development of strategies to manage impacts on species and ecosystems before they become critical.
With more than 8.7 million species worldwide, gathering the necessary biological information to improve predictions is a daunting task. Even a sampling of key species would be beneficial, the authors say, as the more sophisticated models will allow scientists to extrapolate their predictions and apply them to multiple species with similar traits.
The biologists are calling for the launch of a global campaign to be spearheaded by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services or IPBES. The IPBES operates under the auspices of four United Nations entities and is dedicated to providing scientific information to policymakers worldwide. One thousand scientists from all over the world currently contribute to the work of IPBES on a voluntary basis. The scientists are also encouraging conservation strategies to support biodiversity such as maintaining dispersal corridors, and preserving existing natural habitats and genetic diversity.
“Our biggest challenge is pinpointing which species to concentrate on and which regions we need to allocate resources,” says Urban, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UConn. In an earlier study in Science, Urban predicted that as many as one in six species internationally could be wiped out by climate change. “We are at a triage stage at this point. We have limited resources and patients lined up at the door.”
Levels of global biodiversity loss may negatively impact on ecosystem function and the sustainability of human societies, according to UCL-led research.
“This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL and previously at UNEP-WCMC.
“We know biodiversity loss affects ecosystem function but how it does this is not entirely clear. What we do know is that in many parts of the world, we are approaching a situation where human intervention might be needed to sustain ecosystem function.”
The team found that grasslands, savannas and shrublands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed closely by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. They say the ability of biodiversity in these areas to support key ecosystem functions such as growth of living organisms and nutrient cycling has become increasingly uncertain.
The study, published today in Science, led by researchers from UCL, the Natural History Museum and UNEP-WCMC, found that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could undermine efforts towards long-term sustainable development.
“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences – and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”
Gaps in our information about biodiversity means we are at risk of focussing our conservation efforts in the wrong places.
New research from Newcastle University, UK, University College London (UCL) and the University of Queensland, Australia, highlights the uncertainty around our global biodiversity data because of the way we record species sightings.
The study explains how a lack of information about a species in a particular location doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there and that recording when we don’t see something is as important as recording when we do.
Publishing their findings today in the academic journal Biology Letters, the team say we need to change the way we record sightings – or a lack of them – so we can better prioritise our conservation efforts in light of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Dr Phil McGowan, one of the study’s authors and a Senior Lecturer in Biodiversity and Conservation at Newcastle University, said:
“Where there is no recent biodiversity data from an area then we might assume a species is no longer found there, but there could be a number of other possible reasons for this lack of data.
“It could be that its habitat is inaccessible – either geographically or due to human activity such as ongoing conflict – or perhaps it’s simply a case that no-one has been looking for it.
“Unless we know where people have looked for a particular species and not found it then we can’t be confident that it’s not there.”
To test the research, the team used the rigorously compiled database of European and Asian Galliformes – a group of birds which includes the pheasant, grouse and quail.
“Our long-standing love of the Galliformes goes back hundreds of years which means we have records that are likely to be much better than for other groups of animals or plants,” explains Dr McGowan.
“Not only have these birds been hunted for food, but their spectacular colours made them valuable as trophies and to stock the private aviaries of the wealthy. In the late 1800s and the turn of the last century, the Galliformes were prized specimens in museum and private collections and today they are still a favourite with bird watchers.”
Analysing 153,150 records dating from 1727 to 2008 and covering an area from the UK to Siberia and down to Indonesia, the team found that after 1980, there was no available data at 40% of the locations where Galliformes had previously been present.
The study suggests two possible scenarios.
Dr Elizabeth Boakes, the study’s lead author and a teaching fellow at University College London, said:
“We have no evidence of populations existing past 1980 in 40% of our locations. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
“One scenario is that populations have been lost from these areas, probably due to hunting or habitat loss. The other scenario is that the species are still locally present but that nobody has been to look for them.
“Our study shows that which scenario you choose to believe makes a huge difference to measures used in conservation priority-setting such as species richness and geographic range. It’s important that we make the right call and that means a big shake up in the way we currently monitor biodiversity.
“We need to record what we don’t see as well as what we do see and we need to be recording across much wider areas.”
People can check out local wildlife wherever they are in the world with a new app that says what species of animals and plants might be nearby.
The free Map of Life app dispenses with bulky field guides by allowing users to access a vast global database of species and their ranges, based on their location.
Building on the Map of Life website, which provides a database of everything from bumblebees to trees, the app tells users in an instant which sets of species are likely to be found in their vicinity. Photos and text help users identify and learn more about what they see. The app also helps users create personal lists of observations and contribute those observations to scientific research and conservation efforts.
“The app puts a significant proportion of our global knowledge about biodiversity in the palm of your hand, and allows you to discover and connect with biodiversity in a place, wherever you are,” said guiding force behind the Map of Life Professor Walter Jetz, a Senior Scientist in the Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and Environment group at Imperial College London and an associate professor at Yale University.
“This vast information, personalized for where we are, can change the way we identify and learn about the things we see when traveling, hiking in the woods, or stepping in our own back yard.”
Instead of sifting through hundreds of pages in a printed field guide, naturalists get a digital guide that is already tailored to their location. With a novel modelling and mapping platform covering tens of thousands of species — everything from mammals and birds to plants, amphibians, reptiles, arthropod groups, and fish — Map of Life presents localised species information via maps, photographs, and detailed information.
Thanks to a recording feature, citizen scientists everywhere can log their bird encounters and dragonfly sightings directly into the app and add to the biodiversity data available to scientists around the world.
“Think of a field guide that continues to improve the more we all use it and add to it. That is the beauty of this mobile application, and its great strength,” said Rob Guralnick, associate curator at the University of Florida and the project’s co-leader. “Built from 100 years of knowledge about where species are found, we hope to accelerate our ability to completely close the many gaps in our biodiversity knowledge.”
Indeed, making it easier and more globally streamlined for citizen scientists to contribute information is one of the key motivations behind creating the app. “The world is changing rapidly and species continue to disappear before we even knew where they occurred, what role they had, and how we could conserve them,” said Professor Jetz, who is involved in several global science initiatives for advancing biodiversity monitoring.
“Too much of our knowledge is limited to too few places and species,” said Professor Jetz. “Helping people everywhere to identify and then record biodiversity carries the potential to hugely extend the geographic and taxonomic reach of measuring the pulse of life.”
Leading conservation scientists from around the world have called for a substantial role for nuclear power in future energy-generating scenarios in order to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity.
In an open letter to environmentalists with more than 60 signatories, the scientists ask the environmental community to “weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is `green’ “.
Organised by ecologists Professor Barry Brook and Professor Corey Bradshaw from the University of Adelaide‘s Environment Institute, the letter supports their recent article `Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation’, published in the journal Conservation Biology.
“Full decarbonisation of the global electricity-generation sector is required soon to avoid the worst ravages of climate change,” says Professor Bradshaw, Director, Ecological Modelling at the Environment Institute and recently appointed Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change.
“Biodiversity is not only threatened by climate disruption arising largely from fossil-fuel derived emissions, it is also threatened by land transformation resulting from renewable energy sources, such as flooded areas for hydro-electricity, agricultural areas needed for biofuels and large spaces needed for wind and solar farms.”