Public Release:  Information technology provides biologists with new tools for biodiversity conservation

International Biodiversity Observation Year

Information Technology, or IT, is spurring a revolution in biodiversity research that can deliver a more complete view of the world and help conserve species, according to six biologists who will speak today at American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition in Boston, MA. "Biodiversity research today uses the latest IT as much as the traditional butterfly nets and flower presses", said Diana Wall, organizer of the symposium and soil ecologist at Colorado State University, in an interview in advance of the symposium. "It has given us the ability to draw on multiple pieces of information from across the world."

Each of the speakers at the symposium "Biodiversity Science and Global Research: the International Biodiversity Observation Year" leads an international research project as part of the International Biodiversity Observation Year (IBOY) 2001-2002. IBOY is an initiative of DIVERSITAS, the international program on biodiversity science. It seeks to network scientists to improve knowledge about biodiversity and its importance for healthy ecosystems and human societies.

The speakers will present findings across issues as varied as biodiversity itself, but their unifying message is that IT has become a vital tool to help understand global biodiversity issues that are crucial for sustainability. Examples of the technologies being used include 3-D electronic images of species that are accelerating identification of poorly known groups of animals, 'distributed' or interconnected databases that enable scientists to query data stored in multiple databases across the world at the touch of a button, and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) a computer-based tool used to map and analyze multiple and complex characteristics of landscapes, including natural and anthropogenic impacts on biodiversity.

  • Diana Wall will present the preliminary findings of the Global Litter Invertebrate Decomposition Experiment (GLIDE), the first world-wide network to examine the animals that dwell in soils on plant material (litter) and regulate decomposition, an ecosystem process essential for global nutrient cycles and maintenance of fertile soils. Global distribution patterns of this highly diverse group of animals are unknown, yet may be critical for identifying biodiversity 'hotspots' and how changes to habitats can affect ecosystem health. Wall will reveal how, in just a few months, GLIDE researchers have analyzed over 17,000 individual animals using new photo-imaging techniques, and have found 28 orders of soil invertebrates from just nine sites. "The enormous diversity of litter fauna once made global studies impossible," said Wall "but we use new 3-D imaging techniques and send images to colleagues around the world to accelerate identification and make the survey tractable."

  • Oliver Ryder, a zoologist from the Zoological Society of San Diego, will discuss the latest applications of genetic technology and genomics for conserving biodiversity in its native habitats. "DNA studies are an important tool for in situ conservation," explains Ryder. "They provide information on genetic variation and the gene pools of species, which is important for monitoring plant and animal populations and their viability, and evaluating the effectiveness of nature reserve and wildlife corridor designs. They also play a role through reproductive medicine." Ryder stresses that the success of these efforts may depend on starting before populations, and therefore the gene pools, have declined significantly, or in worse case scenarios, become extinct. He will report on the progress of DNA Banks for Endangered Species, an international collaborative effort that is working to anticipate the needs for, and secure long-term access to, genetic materials for biodiversity conservation.

  • David Wake, a biologist from the University of California at Berkeley, will describe the latest information from AmphibiaWeb, a web-based informatics system that collates data on amphibians from around the world. "During the past decade awareness that amphibian populations at sites across the world are declining, and even disappearing, has stimulated research activity," says Wake. "This single entry point to global data on amphibians is helping us develop a world view." AmphibiaWeb is helping scientists understand global amphibian species distributions, conservation status, the total number of species described, and rate of new species descriptions. "Ironically," notes Wake, "scientists' heightened concern for declining amphibian species is increasing research activity and is producing an annual increase of 1.5 - 2% in the number of species discovered and described."

  • Richard Mack, an ecologist at Washington State University, will report the ongoing efforts of an international team that is comparing data on invasive species around the world to understand the factors that influence the rate at which these species can occupy new ranges, the extent of these ranges and their long-term environmental impact. Ultimately, the scientists hope to identify the circumstances that make a species highly invasive or make an ecosystem susceptible to invasion. Mack believes this information will be invaluable in demonstrating the growth of invasions by these taxonomically diverse species in clear, graphic projections. Such studies will enable both investigators and policy-makers to quickly detect the course and rate of an invasion.

  • Walter Reid, Director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, will describe the progress after year one of this four-year program to assess the consequences of changes to the world's ecosystems for human well-being and to provide policy options. An international task force of experts spent the first year of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment designing a methodology for this unprecedented assessment of the feedbacks between ecology and human decision-making. Reid will outline this methodology, which integrates perspectives from local, national and regional scales with data collected at the global scale by remote sensing and modeling.

  • Thomas Lovejoy, Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations Foundation and Chief Biodiversity Advisor at the World Bank, will describe another new collaborative research program that seeks to help conservation efforts by improving access to data across international borders and disciplines. Amazonia GIS provides continuously updated maps of the Amazon Basin with overlapping layers of conservation activity, such as protected areas and national parks, to individuals whose work affects conservation in this threatened ecosystem.

The symposium speakers hope that the new opportunities that information technology affords will promote increased biodiversity research and policy action at the global scale. "It has been a decade since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Earth Summit, called attention to the global problem of biodiversity loss," said Wall, "Yet the vast majority of research and policy action on biodiversity remains local or regional." Wall believes a major effort is now essential to put these local pieces together to understand issues such as how many species we share our planet with, which species are particularly valuable or vulnerable, and how we can manage changing ecosystems.

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Editor's Note:

The Session "Biodiversity Science and Global Research: the International Biodiversity Observation Year" takes place on Friday, February 15, 2002, at the AAAS Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition, Boston, MA.

More information on the International Biodiversity Observation Year (IBOY) taking place in 2001 - 2002 can be found at http://www.nrel.colostate.edu/IBOY. IBOY is chaired by Dr. Diana Wall, the co-organizer of this symposium. The IBOY Secretariat is located at Colorado State University.

IBOY is an initiative of DIVERSITAS. Intellectual sponsorship is provided by the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), International Union of Microbiological Sciences (IUMS), Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). IBOY has been endorsed by the Sixteenth International Botanical Congress (IBC) and the Second World Conservation Congress of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The Fifth Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) invited parties to participate in the IBOY. Financial sponsorship of IBOY is provided by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) (under Grant No. DEB-0122141), the International Council for Science (ICSU), Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International (CABS), the International Group of Funding Agencies (IGFA), DIVERSITAS, and two anonymous US foundations. We acknowledge the support of the US National Committee for DIVERSITAS and the Board on International Scientific Organizations of the National Research Council.

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