A conservation biologist at the University of York is part of an international team of researchers that has developed a remarkable new road map for protecting thousands of rare species that live only in Madagascar.
The researchers, including Professor Chris Thomas, prepared a detailed conservation plan for lemurs, ants, butterflies, frogs, geckos and plants across the 226,642-square-mile island, considered one of the most significant biodiversity hot spots in the world.
Altogether, more than 2,300 species were included in the analysis. Centralizing and analyzing the sheer quantity of data to develop a map of conservation priorities provided an unprecedented analytical challenge. The results are described in the April 11 issue of Science.
The researchers believe that their method of analysis could easily be transferred to other high priority regions for conservation. Professor Thomas said: "It is really exciting that we now have methods available to identify priority areas for conservation in the tropics, and especially in biodiversity hotspots, where the need for conservation is most urgent. The next task is to carry out similar analyses for other priority regions of the world."
In Madagascar, a massive team of researchers collected highly detailed data on the exact locations of animal and plant species across the island. They used specially developed software to estimate the complete range of each species, and to identify which regions are most important for saving the greatest number. Species that have experienced a proportionally larger loss of habitat due to deforestation were given top priority in the resulting conservation plan because they are at greater risk of extinction.
The team's work demonstrates that relying on a single group of species for a conservation plan does not provide adequate protection for other species groups.
According to some estimates, about half of the world's plant species and three-quarters of vertebrate species are concentrated in biodiversity hot spots that make up only 2.3 percent of Earth's land surface. Madagascar, a developing country off the southeast coast of Africa, is one of the most treasured of these regions of biodiversity.
An estimated 80 percent of the animals on Madagascar do not occur naturally anywhere else on Earth. Half of the world's chameleons and all species of lemurs are endemic to this island. They are joined by whole families of plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs that are found only in Madagascar.
The project was lead jointly by researchers Claire Kremen and Alison Cameron of the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Co-lead Claire Kremen, assistant professor of conservation biology at UC Berkeley said: "Our analysis raises the bar on what's possible in conservation planning, and helps decision makers determine the most important places to protect. Conservation planning has historically focused on protecting one species or one group of species at a time, but in our race to beat species extinction, that one-taxon approach is not going to be quick enough."
In 2003, Madagascar's government announced plans to triple the island's protected area network from about 5 million to 15 million acres (20,234-60,700 square kilometers), or about 10 percent of the country's total land surface.
A diverse group of 22 researchers, from museums, zoos, herbaria, universities, non-governmental organizations and industry, and from six countries, contributed to this new analysis. They received help from an additional 62 collaborators who, in turn, were part of much larger research teams that often worked in rough terrain, and endured leeches and torrential rainfall, to collect the data.
Co-lead researcher Dr Alison Cameron, of UC Berkeley, added: "Earlier efforts at conservation planning focused on whether a protected species was included in a designated area, but that region may not include a significant fraction of the species' population for it to remain viable in the long term."
"In contrast, our analysis goes further by maximizing the proportion of every species, so that they achieve maximum conservation, within the target of 15 million acres (60 thousand square kilometres) set by the government. This is a huge shift in approach."