Deciding on sites for conservation

Posted on December 13, 2016

Biodiversity conservation is hampered by the fact that many species haven’t been described and most species ranges haven’t been mapped. As a result, in selecting sites for protection, natural resource managers often resort to the use of surrogate indicators for the species that they wish to conserve. Surrogates may be other, more common, species, or particular features in the landscape. Conservation planners try to select sites that represent each surrogate at a desired level, but one problem with this approach is the fact that site variability, both between and within surrogates, is ignored. An improved method involves locating surrogates within continuous environmental space, rather than treating them as independent entities. Researchers at Northern Arizona University tested this approach by selecting sites that between them spanned the range of environmental diversity, arguing that this should efficiently represent most species. They examined eight data sets covering a range of locations and species, in each case using multivariate (principal components) analysis to identify significant environmental gradients, and then choosing the single environmental variable that was most strongly correlated with a given gradient. Although most data sets were of terrestrial animals and plants, one of them related to amphibians in western Europe. In seven of the eight analyses (including the amphibian example), the sites selected for maximum environmental diversity represented more species than sites selected randomly. Environmental diversity offers a promising and cost-effective way of prioritising sites for conservation.

Reference: Beier, P. & Albuquerque, F. 2015. Environmental diversity as a surrogate for species representation. Conservation Biology, 29 (5), 1401–1410.