New technologies making it easier to protect threatened species

02 June 2014 | News story

Human actions are driving many species to extinction 1000 times faster than their natural rate, but a new Duke University-led study finds that emerging technologies could give scientists and policymakers a more efficient way to identify the species at greatest risk and take steps to protect them before it’s too late.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, Pimm and an international team of scientists review recent advances in conservation science made possible by new technologies, as well as challenges that remain unmet. Despite recent progress, the scientists note, many uncertainties remain as to how many species there are, where they are, and their rates of extinction.

“The great depth of our current assessment is only possible thanks to the extraordinary efforts of all those who contribute to the databases of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and of Protected Planet,” says Tom Brooks, Head of Science & Knowledge at IUCN and one of the study's authors. “We need to stimulate the investment essential to maintain these knowledge products, and to support the expansion of the Red List from its current coverage of 70,000 species to 160,000 species.”

“Online databases, smart phone apps, crowd sourcing and new hardware devices are making it easier to collect data on species. When combined with data on land-use change and the species observations of millions of amateur citizen scientists, they are increasingly allowing scientists and policymakers to more closely monitor the planet's biodiversity and threats to it,” said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke.

“For our success to continue, however, we need to support the expansion of these technologies and the development of even more powerful technologies to come,” he said.

Pimm added that another vital tool for identifying these critical places are new maps created by Clinton Jenkins of the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas in Brazil and co-lead authors of the new study. Jenkins’ maps show where the most vulnerable species live. He manages a website that makes the constantly updated maps available to the public. He and Pimm also direct the non-profit organization SavingSpecies, that uses detailed maps of where endangered species live to set conservation priorities and support local conservation actions to prevent extinctions.

Technologies such as these databases and maps are now allowing scientists to expand their focus and identify important patterns and trends among aquatic and marine species, as well as land-based ones. Freshwater species are likely more threatened than ones on land, the new study shows, and the potential for species extinctions in the oceans has been severely underestimated. While nearly 13 percent of Earth’s land area is now protected, only 2 percent of its ocean is. Traditional conservations measures, such as nature reserves may fall short of conferring protection, especially for freshwater species.

“Most species live outside protected areas, so understanding how their environments are changing is a vital task,” Pimm said. “One of the most exciting opportunities made possible by new technology is that we can now combine existing databases such as the Red List with constantly updated maps of where species live, maps of areas that are protected, maps of land-use change and the species observations of amateurs. Rather than relying primarily on local snapshots of biodiversity, we can fashion a more detailed global perspective of Earth’s biodiversity, the threats to it, and how to manage them.”

"The gap between what we know and don't know about Earth's biodiversity is still tremendous — but technology is going to play a major role in closing it and helping us conserve biodiversity more intelligently and efficiently," said Lucas N. Joppa, a conservation scientist at Microsoft’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge, U.K.


CITATION: “The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection,” by Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, Robin Abell, Tom M. Brooks, John. L. Gittleman, Lucas N. Joppa, Peter. H. Raven, Callum. M. Roberts, and Joe O. Sexton. Published May 30, 2014, in Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1246752