Conservation policies 'impaired by over-confident predictions'

April 18, 2011 By David Garner, University of York

Inappropriate conservation policies may be implemented as a result of scientists failing to sufficiently acknowledge the uncertainty of their models, according to Dr. Colin Beale, of the University of York.

Speaking at a Discussion Meeting on Predictive at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, this week, Dr. Beale will discuss how species distribution models, which are often used as the basis for conservation planning, make predictions which are subject to significant uncertainty, the degree and source of which is often unrecognized.

Dr. Beale said: “We need to reassess the way that we make conservation choices. Using species distribution models whose uncertainty is unrepresented or underestimated, we may adopt an expensive, precautionary approach which is neither efficient nor effective. 

“Painful as it may be, we have finite conservation resources and, if we are to be confident of cost-effective outcomes, we should sometimes choose to allocate them to species and scenarios where we have a high level of certainty in our knowledge, rather than investing in rare species that we know little about.”

Species distribution models (SDMs) describe the spatial and temporal distribution of particular species, which is useful when devising conservation plans, particularly when considering factors such as disease distribution, climate change, invasive species and habitat fragmentation. However, uncertainties in observed distributions, alongside uncertainty in the environmental factors that may affect them and uncertainty in models used to predict the future environment (such as climate change models), can all make these SDMs less certain and often these uncertainties are overlooked or unacknowledged.  Dr. Beale’s presentation will discuss in further depth these uncertainties and how they could be better estimated and, in some cases, reduced.   

“When one considers a species such as the Scottish crossbill, the only bird species unique to the UK, one can see the results of a failing to recognise the issue of uncertainty in our conservation planning,” said Dr. Beale. 

“This is a species so rare and difficult to identify in the field that our prediction of its future distribution as the climate changes is highly uncertain, yet applying a traditional precautionary approach would suggest an extremely costly and complex conservation plan that, for in reality, may have little or no impact on its chances of survival. Perhaps these funds could be more effectively spent on plans for and systems that we understand better, such as implementing well understood countryside management strategies.”

Explore further: Finding the missing pieces

More information: The full discussion meeting program can be downloaded here: royalsociety.org/events/predictive-ecology/

Related Stories

Finding the missing pieces

March 25, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Missing pieces in the biodiversity puzzle make it impossible to accurately predict the effects of climate change on most plant species in the Amazon and other tropical areas, according to a new study by Associate ...

Predicting extinction risk to birds with a model

October 13, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Yale University researchers have developed a tool for biodiversity conservation in the face of global change: a statistical model that helps predict the risk of extinction for almost 90% of the world’s ...

A changing climate for protected areas

April 2, 2007

On April 6, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a report entitled Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability that focuses on how climate change is affecting the planet.

Recommended for you

Cells lacking nuclei struggle to move in 3-D environments

January 20, 2018

University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers have revealed new details of how the physical properties of the nucleus influence how cells can move around different environments - such as ...

Microbial communities demonstrate high turnover

January 19, 2018

When Mark Twain famously said "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes," he probably didn't anticipate MIT researchers would apply his remark to their microbial research. But a new study does ...

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.