Protecting 17 percent of Earth's land could save two-thirds of plant species

September 5, 2013
This world map shows where the greatest concentrations of endemic native vegetation may still be found. Red, orange and yellow are highest concentrations. Darkest blue is lowest. Credit: Clinton Jenkins, NC State University

Protecting key regions that comprise just 17 percent of Earth's land may help preserve more than two-thirds of its plant species, according to a new Duke University-led study by an international team of scientists.

The researchers from Duke, North Carolina State University and Microsoft Research used to identify the smallest set of regions worldwide that could contain the largest numbers of plant . They published their findings today in the journal Science.

"Our analysis shows that two of the most set forth by the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity—to protect 60 percent of Earth's and 17 percent of its land surface—can be achieved, with one major caveat," said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

"To achieve these goals, we need to protect more land, on average, than we currently do, and much more in key places such as Madagascar, New Guinea and Ecuador," Pimm said. "Our study identifies regions of importance. The logical—and very challenging—next step will be to make tactical local decisions within those regions to secure the most critical land for conservation."

Plant species aren't haphazardly distributed across the planet. Certain areas, including Central America, the Caribbean, the Northern Andes and regions in Africa and Asia have much higher concentrations of endemic species, that is, those which are found nowhere else.

"Species endemic to small are at a much higher risk of being threatened or endangered than those with large ranges," said Lucas N. Joppa, a conservation scientist at Microsoft Research's Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge, U.K. "We combined regions to maximize the numbers of species in the minimal area. With that information, we can more accurately evaluate each 's relative importance for conservation, and assess international priorities accordingly."

To identify which of Earth's regions contain the highest concentrations of endemic species, relative to their geographic size, the researchers analyzed data on more than 100,000 different species of flowering plants, compiled by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.

Joppa and Piero Visconti, also of Microsoft Research's Computational Science Laboratory, created and ran the complex algorithms needed to analyze the large spatial database.

Based on their computations, Clinton N. Jenkins, a research scholar at North Carolina State University, created a color-coded global map identifying high-priority regions for plant conservation, ranked by endemic species density.

"We also mapped where the greatest numbers of small-ranged birds, mammals and amphibians occur, and found that they are broadly in the same places we show to be priorities for plants," Jenkins said. "So preserving these lands for plants will benefit many animals, too."

Without having access to the Royal Botanic Gardens' plant database, which is one of the largest biodiversity databases in the world, the team would not have been able to conduct their analysis, said Joppa, who received his Ph.D. in ecology from Duke in 2009.

Pimm and Jenkins lead the conservation nonprofit Saving Species, http://www.savingspecies.org., which works with local communities and international agencies to purchase and protect threatened lands that are critical for biodiversity.

"The fraction of land being protected in high-priority regions increases each year as new national parks are established and greater autonomy is given back to indigenous peoples to allow them to manage their traditional lands," Pimm said. "We're getting tantalizingly close to achieving the Convention of Biological Diversity's global goals. But the last few steps remaining are huge ones."

Explore further: Thousands of undiscovered plant species face extinction

More information: "Achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity's Goals for Plant Conservation," Lucas Joppa, Piero Visconti, Clinton N. Jenkins, Stuart L. Pimm. Science, Sept. 5, 2013

Related Stories

Thousands of undiscovered plant species face extinction

July 7, 2010

Faced with threats such as habitat loss and climate change, thousands of rare flowering plant species worldwide may become extinct before scientists can even discover them, according to a paper published today by a trio of ...

Most of 'missing species' live in known hotspots, study finds

July 4, 2011

Most of the world's "missing" or undiscovered species live in regions already identified by scientists as conservation priorities, according to a new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy ...

World's most extraordinary species mapped for the first time

May 15, 2013

Scientists pinpointed areas of the world where Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) mammals and amphibians occur. Regions containing the highest concentrations of these species are highlighted as global ...

Mapping out how to save species

June 27, 2013

In stunning color, new biodiversity research from North Carolina State University maps out priority areas worldwide that hold the key to protecting vulnerable species and focusing conservation efforts.

Recommended for you

How bees naturally vaccinate their babies

July 31, 2015

When it comes to vaccinating their babies, bees don't have a choice—they naturally immunize their offspring against specific diseases found in their environments. And now for the first time, scientists have discovered how ...

Researchers design first artificial ribosome

July 29, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have engineered a tethered ribosome that works nearly as well as the authentic cellular component, or organelle, that produces all the proteins ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.