'Tree of life' distances are no shortcut to conservation

Mar 11, 2014

Evolutionary distances that conservationists use to identify and target distinct species may be unreliable, Oxford University research suggests.

Some assume that the evolutionary distances between on a phylogenetic 'tree of life' (a branching diagram of species popularised by Charles Darwin) can be used to predict how diverse their biological features will be. These distances are then used to select which species to conserve in order to maximise interesting biological features – such as potentially useful drug compounds and resilience to climate change.

But a new analysis of data from 223 studies of animals, plants, and fungi, shows that methods based on such distances are often no better at conserving interesting biological features than picking species at random. A report of the research is published this week in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

'Whilst 'close neighbours' on the branches of the tree of life are likely to share more biological features than distant ones, we found that you only have to move a short distance away before predictions about how much more diverse an organism's features should be are no better than a random choice,' said Dr Robert Scotland of Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences. 'Much of this may be down to parallel or convergent evolution that sees similar biological features – such as eyes and wings – evolving independently again and again throughout the history of life.'

The new analysis suggests that phylogenetic distance by itself is not an adequate way of prioritising which organisms are most dissimilar to target for conservation.

'Maximising biological feature diversity is clearly important to conservation but you won't achieve this if you don't select the right range of species, and our study shows that you are unlikely to select the right range of species if you use phylogenetic distance,' said Dr Scotland. 'What our work suggests is that we need better, more nuanced, methods for identifying feature diverse species to underpin conservation strategies.'

Explore further: Study of rodent family tree puts brakes on commonly held understanding of evolution

More information: Kelly, S., Grenyer, R., Scotland, R. W. (2014), Phylogenetic trees do not reliably predict feature diversity. Diversity and Distributions. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12188

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Rare species perform unique roles, even in diverse ecosystems

May 28, 2013

A new study, published 28 May in the open access journal PLOS Biology, has revealed the potential importance of rare species in the functioning of highly diverse ecosystems. Using data from three very different ecosystems—coral reefs, ...

Relating animals to humans could help conservation projects

Aug 22, 2013

New research by conservationists at the universities of Kent, Oxford, Columbia (USA) and Monash (Australia) suggests that people's tendency to relate more to animals that bear a resemblance to humans (anthropomorphism) ...

New plant species a microcosm of biodiversity

Feb 07, 2014

Biologists working in the Andes mountains of Ecuador have described a new plant species, a wild relative of black pepper, that is in itself a mini biodiversity hotspot. The new species, Piper kelleyi, is the ...

Recommended for you

Seeds keep vital much longer when stored without oxygen

6 hours ago

If seed breeding companies, gene banks and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen should store plant seeds under oxygen-poor conditions, it would be possible to store them for much longer while still ...

Native species may be hindering fox control efforts

6 hours ago

Native species interfering with ground distributed baits used to control red foxes in south west Western Australia may mean the baits are not available to the target species, a Murdoch University study has ...

Giant anteaters kill two hunters in Brazil

Jul 26, 2014

Giant anteaters in Brazil have killed two hunters in separate incidents, raising concerns about the animals' loss of habitat and the growing risk of dangerous encounters with people, researchers said.

User comments : 0