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80 Percent Of ‘Irreplaceable’ Habitats In Andes Unprotected

January 27, 2012

Hundreds of rare, endemic species in the Central Andes remain unprotected and are increasingly under threat from development and climate change, according to a Duke University-led international study.

“These species require unique ecological conditions and are particularly vulnerable to changes in the environment or climate. Yet our analysis shows that region-wide, about 80 percent of the areas with high numbers of these species lack any protection,” said Jennifer Swenson, assistant professor of the practice of geospatial analysis at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The study, published today in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal BMC Ecology, identifies and maps the geographic ranges of hundreds of species of plants and animals — including mammals, birds and amphibians — that are found nowhere in the world outside the Andes-Amazon basin in Peru and Bolivia.

The threat to these species has become especially severe in recent years, Swenson said, as oil and gold mining, infrastructure projects, agriculture and other human activities encroach farther into the region’s biologically rich landscapes.

“This is one of Earth’s most rapidly changing areas,” she said.

To conduct their study, Swenson and her colleagues collected more than 7,000 individual records of endemic species locations for 115 species of birds, 55 mammals, 177 amphibians and 435 plants. They combined these with satellite images and climate, topography and vegetation data to create models, detailed to one kilometer, that mapped endemic species distributions across the entire basin — from the forested slopes and dry inter-mountain valleys of the Andes all the way to the low-lying Amazonian wetlands and savannas.

By overlaying this data with maps showing modern political boundaries in the Andes-Amazon basin, the researchers found that only about 20 percent of the areas with high numbers of endemic species or high levels of irreplaceability fell within national parks or protected areas, and that 226 rare endemic species lacked any national-level protection at all. Irreplaceability is a term used by conservationists to denote biodiversity hotspots where high numbers of endemic species with very small ranges live. These are often among the most vital — and vulnerable — habitats in a region.

“Interestingly, one of the areas we identified with the highest number of bird and mammal species and one of the highest levels of irreplaceability was an unprotected region surrounding the World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu, one of the most heavily visited tourist destinations in the region,” Swenson noted.

As the effects of development and climate change continue to shrink or shift geographic ranges in coming decades, some species may literally be running out of ground, she said.

“Conservation strategies across the Andes urgently need revising,” she said. “There is already evidence of species migrating upslope to keep up with climate change. We hope our data will help protect this incredibly unique region.”

Bruce E. Young, director of species science at the nonprofit conservation organization NatureServe, was principal co-author of the study. Twenty additional collaborators from conservation agencies and organizations in Peru and Bolivia helped gather data.

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