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Researchers say unique ecore­gions do exist, which could lead to improved con­ser­va­tion of species

pub­lished 08 Decem­ber 2018 | mod­i­fied 08 Decem­ber 2018

Find­ings show strong evi­dence for unique regions that divide plant and ani­mal com­mu­ni­ties — a major devel­op­ment in centuries-​long debate.

Wondiwoi tree kangarooThe wondi­woi tree kan­ga­roo (den­dro­galus mayri) as depicted in the mono­graph enti­tled ‘The Genus Den­dro­galus’ by Lord Roth­schild F.R.S., F.Z.S. and Guy Doll­man, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Zool­ogy in March 1936.A major obsta­cle to nature con­ser­va­tion is the fact that we still know very lit­tle about the nat­ural world. As con­firmed, this sum­mer, when an ama­teur biol­o­gist stum­bled upon the Wondi­woi tree kan­ga­roo while trekking through Papua New Guinea. The Wondi­woi (Den­dro­la­gus mayri) is clas­si­fied as Crit­i­cally Endan­gered by the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species, but no one had reported see­ing the strange crea­ture — a cross between a bear and a mon­key — since before the Great Depres­sion. So, it wasn’t strange peo­ple pre­sumed the species went extinct. But now it has been dis­cov­ered, the ques­tion arise on how it can be protected.

A new Stanford-​led study sup­ports one approach to pro­tect­ing all species in an area — the ones we know about and the ones, like the tree kan­ga­roo, sci­en­tists don’t even know need pro­tec­tion. That con­ser­va­tion scheme focuses broadly on what are known as ecore­gions. These are geo­graph­i­cally unique regions, such as deserts and rain­forests, that con­tain dis­tinct com­mu­ni­ties of plants and animals.

Sci­en­tists have long debated how well ecore­gion bor­ders sep­a­rate species com­mu­ni­ties. If the bor­ders are strong, pro­tect­ing an ecore­gion, like a rain­for­est, would effec­tively pro­tect all of the species within. If not, each species would need to be man­aged sep­a­rately — a much more uncer­tain under­tak­ing, espe­cially when we don’t even know some species are there.

The new study, pub­lished on 5 Novem­ber in Nature Ecol­ogy & Evo­lu­tion, pro­vides com­pelling evi­dence that ecore­gions do mean­ing­fully divide plant and ani­mal com­mu­ni­ties. This opens a path to new con­ser­va­tion approaches that more afford­ably and effec­tively pro­tect little-​known species, such as the tree kan­ga­roo, and valu­able nat­ural ser­vices such as dis­ease con­trol and water filtration.

Envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion is lim­ited by a lack of fund­ing and other resources,” said study lead author Jef­frey Smith, a Stan­ford grad­u­ate stu­dent in biol­ogy. “Ecore­gions give us a way to effec­tively allo­cate that lim­ited funding.”

Bridg­ing the knowl­edge gap
Robust, sci­en­tif­i­cally based con­ser­va­tion depends on in-​depth infor­ma­tion about species, their habi­tats and their pop­u­la­tion num­bers — a level of detail absent for the over­whelm­ing major­ity of species and places around the world. Look­ing for a way to bridge the gap, Smith, Stan­ford biol­o­gist Gretchen Daily and their co-​authors did a deep dive into plant and ani­mal bio­di­ver­sity data from sources such as the U.S. For­est Ser­vice and the Global Bio­di­ver­sity Infor­ma­tion Facil­ity, a clear­ing­house for data from cit­i­zen sci­en­tists, muse­ums and researchers.

From that, they unearthed sup­port for think­ing about all species — even highly mobile ani­mals — as being clus­tered together in ecore­gions around the globe. These results go far beyond pre­vi­ous work, which pri­mar­ily char­ac­ter­ized ecore­gions by plant com­mu­ni­ties alone.

Ecoregions borderA tran­si­tional area between beach, man­groves, and grass­lands — regions that host unique plant and ani­mal com­mu­ni­ties — in Costa Rica.
Image credit: Jef­frey Smith

These are cru­cially impor­tant find­ings. They illu­mi­nate where and how to invest in con­ser­va­tion and restora­tion for peo­ple and nature.

Gretchen Daily, co-​author, Depart­ment of Biol­ogy, Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, USA

The future of Earth’s life-​support sys­tems hinges on vast yet lit­tle stud­ied regions of the planet. Estab­lish­ing that ecore­gions mean­ing­fully divide dif­fer­ent types of com­mu­ni­ties allows sci­en­tists and decision-​makers to think more crit­i­cally about con­ser­va­tion plans for these realms. This holis­tic approach to pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­sity ensures we can bet­ter safe­guard nat­ural ser­vices, such as crop pol­li­na­tion and pest con­trol, that are made pos­si­ble by diverse ecosys­tems of plants, insects, fungi and small vertebrates.

The authors argue that ecore­gions are one of many fac­tors that should be con­sid­ered when devel­op­ing a cohe­sive con­ser­va­tion strat­egy. It’s an approach already in play at some major global con­ser­va­tion orga­ni­za­tions, such as The Nature Con­ser­vancy and WWF, as well as fed­eral agen­cies, such as the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

(Source: Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity news release, 05.11.2018)

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