Protecting Key Regions May Help Preserve Plant Species Worldwide
September 6, 2013

Majority Of The World’s Plants Could Be Saved By Protecting 17 Percent Of Land

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Focusing conservation efforts on key regions that comprise less than one-fifth of the Earth’s land could help protect and preserve over two-thirds of the world’s plant species, according to new research appearing in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Researchers from Duke University, along with an international team of colleagues, used computer algorithms to identify the smallest set of regions globally that could contain the largest number of different plant species. Their analysis showed that the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity’s goals of protecting 60 percent of the Earth’s plant species and 17 percent of its land surface were both achievable.

However, according to Stuart L. Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at the Durham, North Carolina university’s Nicholas School of the Environment, there is one key issue that experts will first have to address and overcome.

“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,” he 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.”

The authors explain that plant species are not distributed randomly across the planet. Certain regions, such as Central America, the Caribbean, the Northern Andes and regions in Africa and Asia, are home to higher concentrations of endemic species (those which cannot be found anywhere else).

In order to identify which regions contained the highest concentration of endemic species relative to geographic size, Pimm and his colleague analyzed data on more than 100,000 different species of flowering plants, compiled by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.

“Species endemic to small geographical ranges are at a much higher risk of being threatened or endangered than those with large ranges,” explained Lucas N. Joppa, a conservation scientist at Microsoft Research's Computational Science Laboratory in the UK and co-creator of the algorithm used to analyze the database as part of the study.

Joppa said that the research team combined regions in order to maximize the number of species contained in the smallest possible region. They were then able to use that information to “more accurately evaluate each region's relative importance for conservation, and assess international priorities accordingly.”

Clinton N. Jenkins of North Carolina State University (NCSU) then used those computations to create a color-coded global map that identified high-priority regions for plant conservation, ranked in order of endemic species density. They also mapped the areas that were home to the largest numbers of small-ranged birds, mammals and amphibians, and found that both types of locations were broadly the same.

“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. We're getting tantalizingly close to achieving the Convention of Biological Diversity's global goals. But the last few steps remaining are huge ones,” Pimm concluded.

Image 2 (below): 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