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New technologies ‘making it easier’ to protect threatened species

Posted on 30 May 2014

Human actions have pushed extinction rates to 1000 times faster than the natural rate. New research says that without urgent action, further rises are likely heralding what many believe could become the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history.

An international team of scientists, including Professor Callum Roberts, of the University of York, suggests that emerging technologies could give scientists and policymakers a more efficient way to identify the species at greatest risk and take steps to protect them before it is too late. 

In a paper published today in Science, the researchers, led by Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, USA, review recent advances in conservation science made possible by new technologies, as well as challenges that remain unmet. Despite recent progress, they note, many uncertainties remain as to how many species there are, where they are, and their rates of extinction. 

Professor Pimm said:  “Online databases, smart phone apps, crowd sourcing and new hardware are making it easier to collect data on species. When combined with data on land-use change and the species observations of millions of amateur citizen scientists, they are increasingly allowing closer monitoring of the planet's biodiversity and threats to it. 

“For our success to continue, however, we need to support the expansion of these technologies and develop even more powerful technologies for the future.” 

Professor Roberts, of the Environment Department at York, added: “Our planet seems to have shrunk as transport and communication links have reached every corner of the world. So it comes as a surprise that the species we know are still vastly outnumbered by those we don’t know. Our study shows that these unknown species are likely in greater danger from us than the ones we are familiar with.”

Technologies such as the Red List and the Protected Planet database are allowing scientists to expand their focus and identify important patterns and trends among aquatic and marine species too. Freshwater species are likely more threatened than species on land, the new study shows.

“The potential for species’ extinctions in the oceans has been severely underestimated,” Professor Roberts said. “The sea is the least explored part of the planet but holds more than 95% of its living space and a large chunk of the unknown species. New data we review show the same pattern that we see on land of geographical clusters of small range species that are particularly vulnerable to extinction. This is worrying because ocean conservation has been particularly neglected. While nearly 13 percent of Earth’s land area is now protected, only two percent of its ocean is.” 

Traditional conservation measures, such as nature reserves may fall short of conferring protection, especially for freshwater species.

“Most species live outside protected areas, so understanding how their environments are changing is vital,” Professor Pimm said. “One of the most exciting opportunities made possible by new technology is that we can combine existing databases such as the Red List with constantly updated maps of where species live, maps of areas that are protected, maps of land-use change, human impacts and threat, and the species observations of amateurs. Rather than rely on local snapshots of biodiversity, we can fashion a detailed global perspective of Earth’s biodiversity, the threats to it, and how to manage them.” 

“The great depth of our current assessment is only possible thanks to the extraordinary efforts of all those who contribute to the databases of the Red List of Threatened Species and of Protected Planet,” noted Tom Brooks of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “We need to stimulate the investment essential to maintain these knowledge tools, and more than double the size of the Red List from its current 70,000 species.”  The Red List, now in its 50th year, is at www.iucnredlist.org. The Protected Planet database is at www.protectedplanet.net.

The value of such databases, according to Professor Pimm, is that they help scientists spot trends and patterns that might otherwise be missed.

“For instance, we now know that most land-based species have small geographical ranges — less than the size of East Anglia — and are geographically concentrated. Species with small ranges are disproportionately likely to go extinct,” he said. “This knowledge offers the hope that we can concentrate our conservation efforts on critical places around the planet.”

Lucas N. Joppa, a conservation scientist at Microsoft’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge added: "The gap between what we know and don't know about Earth's biodiversity is still tremendous — but technology is playing a major role in closing it and helping us conserve biodiversity more intelligently and efficiently. These new approaches will also be vital in evaluating progress towards international conservation goals, such as the recently established Aichi targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.”

Further information:

  • “The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection,” by Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, Robin Abell, Tom M. Brooks, John. L. Gittleman, Lucas N. Joppa, Peter. H. Raven, Callum. M. Roberts, and Joe O. Sexton.  Published May 30, 2014, in Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1246752 
  • For more information about the Environment Department at the University of York, please visit www.york.ac.uk/environment/

 

 

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