AboutZoos, Since 2008


Pro­tect­ing rare species can ben­e­fit human life

pub­lished 30 May 2019 | mod­i­fied 30 May 2019

Pre­serv­ing rare species for the sake of global bio­di­ver­sity has long been the pri­mary focus for conservationists.

Giant sequoia at Benmore Park, ScotlandThe very impres­sive avenue of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiaden­dron gigan­teum) at Ben­more Botanic Gar­den, near Dunoon in Argyll, Scot­land. Planted in 1863, these giants soar over 50 metres high.
Image credit: Dougie Mac­don­ald; licensed under the Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion 3.0 Unported license.

To bet­ter pro­tect rare ani­mals, insects and plants, and to pre­pare for an uncer­tain future influ­enced by cli­mate change, a team of researchers is aim­ing to merge this con­ven­tional wis­dom with a new way of think­ing: argu­ing researchers needs to bet­ter under­stand how rare species ben­e­fit peo­ple out­side of their exis­tence value.

In a paper pub­lished online on 16 May in the jour­nal Trends in Ecol­ogy and Evo­lu­tion, researchers with the Long-​Term Eco­log­i­cal Research Net­work (LTER) out­lined an agenda for improv­ing our under­stand­ing of how rare species help sup­port human lives and well-​being by con­tribut­ing to the ben­e­fits of ecosys­tems on which peo­ple depend.

Such an under­stand­ing is espe­cially impor­tant given a recent United Nations report that warns up to 1 mil­lion species are at risk of extinc­tion due to human activity.

The novel approach is poised to help global pol­icy ini­tia­tives, such as the UN Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Bio­di­ver­sity and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices (IPBES), that are try­ing to respond to the world’s bio­di­ver­sity cri­sis and pro­tect nature’s ben­e­fits to people.

If rare species that are of the most inter­est to con­ser­va­tion also ben­e­fit people’s lives, it cre­ates an added incen­tive to pro­tect them.

Laura Dee, lead author, Depart­ment of Fish­eries, Wildlife, and Con­ser­va­tion Biol­ogy and the Insti­tute on the Envi­ron­ment, Uni­ver­sity of Minnesota-​Twin Cities, St Paul, USA

Rare species tend to be dif­fer­ent from some of the other species we find in ecosys­tems. Peo­ple are start­ing to think about whether that means they might play a unique role in the future that might oth­er­wise not be rep­re­sented by the more com­mon species,” Dee added.

Few stud­ies have looked into the role rare species play in pro­vid­ing the nat­ural ben­e­fits of ecosys­tems on which peo­ple depend. Thus, researchers don’t know much about which rare species mat­ter to nature’s life-​supporting ser­vices, like stor­ing car­bon and pro­vid­ing food.

Cli­mate change is cre­at­ing even more urgency to under­stand their roles and what los­ing them might mean. Researchers found that rare species may offer a kind of insur­ance against an uncer­tain future, and by over­look­ing them in research stud­ies, ecol­o­gists risk miss­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to buffer the worst effects of cli­mate change.

The team found that:

  • rare species con­tribute to their ecosys­tems and sup­port human life in a vari­ety of unique, often uncon­ven­tional ways, such as key­stone species or plants that sup­port soil fertility;

  • like­wise pre­serv­ing rare species can have a direct pos­i­tive impact on human life. For exam­ple, restor­ing pop­u­la­tions of bluefin tuna could restore their role as a pro­vi­sioner of food for peo­ple, and pro­tect­ing giant sequoias can help store air­borne car­bon that makes cli­mate change worse;

  • humans have an incen­tive to pro­tect rare species whose impacts on our lives are less obvi­ous, because new dis­eases or biotech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs could cre­ate sit­u­a­tions in which rare species pro­vide ben­e­fits to peo­ple. This has hap­pened before: past dis­cov­er­ies found that the rare Mada­gas­car rosy peri­win­kle (Catha­ran­thus roseus) con­tains com­pounds use­ful as med­i­cine for child­hood leukaemia.

Assess­ing species based on their ben­e­fits to human­ity under cli­mate change will bet­ter inform con­ser­va­tion deci­sions, Dee said, shift­ing decision-​making to focus on what the future might look like, rather than what con­di­tions are like today.

Know­ing when, and to what extent, rare species pos­i­tively affect people’s lives can help iden­tify when our mul­ti­ple con­ser­va­tion goals are aligned,” Dee said.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota news release, 16.05.2019)

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