AboutZoos, Since 2008


Wanted dead and alive – New con­cept for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of bio­di­ver­sity in time and space

pub­lished 01 Novem­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 03 Novem­ber 2014

By now, bio­di­ver­sity is a well known term even in the broader pub­lic, as it is used in many media reports about species extinc­tion, nat­ural resources or cli­mate change. Yet research in this field is still lack­ing an inte­gra­tive approach. Pale­on­tol­o­gists and biol­o­gists, for exam­ple, still cut their own path, their stud­ies in species diver­sity and species extinc­tion are rarely com­bined. Sci­en­tists of the Bio­di­ver­sity and Cli­mate Research Cen­tre (BiK-​F) have now responded to calls for inte­gra­tion, and pro­vide a con­cept for link­ing data of both research fields. They have pre­sented their frame­work in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Trends in Ecol­ogy & Evo­lu­tion on 30 May.

Spotted hyena motherandcubUp to now, biol­o­gists and pale­on­tol­o­gists have been work­ing in dif­fer­ent worlds, focus­ing either on liv­ing or on extinct species. This divi­sion has lim­ited an under­stand­ing of rela­tion­ships in space and time. Prof. Dr. Katrin Böhning-​Gaese, direc­tor of the BiK-​F and mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of the Senck­en­berg Gesellschaft für Natur­forschung, stresses the impor­tance of the con­cep­tual frame­work for com­pletely new sci­en­tific pos­si­bil­i­ties: „Thanks to cov­er­ing both pale­on­to­log­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal exper­tise here at Senck­en­berg and BiK-​F, we can put this inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach directly into practice.“

Dead and alive: A con­cept for inte­grated frame­work to which pale­on­tol­o­gists and biol­o­gists contribute

If we com­bine our knowl­edge about extinct species with data about exist­ing organ­isms, we can get a much deeper insight into the evo­lu­tion and the extinc­tion of species
Dr. Susanne Fritz, lead author, BiK-​F »

„We might under­stand why about 800 species of car­niv­o­rous mam­malians became extinct dur­ing the last 15 mil­lion years in North Amer­ica and in Eura­sia, and why today only 280 species are left. Com­bin­ing this with data about his­tor­i­cal cli­mate change will improve our esti­mates for the future num­ber of species, espe­cially when keep­ing the ongo­ing cli­mate change in mind.“

The hyena, a Euro­pean cit­i­zen?
Bio­di­ver­sity can also be explored by inves­ti­gat­ing how species’ traits evolve in close inter­ac­tion with the envi­ron­ment, for exam­ple by analysing eco­log­i­cal niches. These niches describe the envi­ron­men­tal needs of a species and allow con­clu­sions about how the species adapted to its envi­ron­ment. Biol­o­gists assume, for exam­ple, that the spot­ted hyena is now found in savan­nas and arid regions of Africa and the Mid­dle East because it is per­fectly adapted to their spe­cific con­di­tions, such as high tem­per­a­tures and arid­ity. Pale­on­tol­o­gists, how­ever, have known for years that hye­nas also lived in Europe even dur­ing the last glacial period. „If we take the pale­on­to­log­i­cal data into account, eco­log­i­cal niches may be much broader than assumed so far“, says Fritz. In the case of the hyena, this means that the species doesn’t exclu­sively need high tem­per­a­tures. It also means that a new def­i­n­i­tion of the hyena’s eco­log­i­cal niche is required — and that the ques­tion of where hye­nas can or will live in the future under dif­fer­ent cli­matic con­di­tions remains unresolved.

A com­pre­hen­sive under­stand­ing of com­plex processes
The present study will serve as a guide­line for the inte­gra­tion of the dif­fer­ent approaches used in both dis­ci­plines, and demon­strates the result­ing addi­tional ben­e­fit. The team around Susanne Fritz hopes to gain a new com­pre­hen­sive under­stand­ing of how the inter­ac­tions of the numer­ous processes shape tem­po­ral and spa­tial dynam­ics of life. Exam­ples for those key processes are the rela­tion­ships between species and their envi­ron­ment as well as inter­ac­tions between dif­fer­ent species, the evo­lu­tion of species’ traits, and the processes of spe­ci­a­tion, dis­per­sal and extinc­tion of species. The new approach allows the inte­gra­tion of all these fac­tors in com­pre­hen­sive models.

Sci­en­tists of both dis­ci­plines are strongly inter­ested in this con­cept: „The sta­tis­ti­cal mod­els that describe the evo­lu­tion of species can now be extended with pale­on­to­log­i­cal data“, com­ments Böhning-​Gaese. „Our work rep­re­sents a solid the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tion for future mod­el­ling approaches“.

The new con­cept will allow bet­ter pro­jec­tions of which species might go extinct due to envi­ron­men­tal changes — and on the impact this will have on the whole ecosys­tem. Con­sid­er­ing the effects of global warm­ing, the increased knowl­edge gen­er­ated by the new method is even more valuable.

(Source: Senck­en­berg World of Bio­di­ver­sity press release, 30.09.2013)

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Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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