Changing Perspectives in Conservation

By Claire Asher, on 18 December 2014

Our views of the importance of nature and our place within have changed dramatically over the the last century, and the prevailing paradigm has profound influences on conservation from the science that is conducted to the policies that are enacted. In a recent perspectives piece for Science, GEE’s Professor Georgina Mace considered the impacts that these perspectives have on conservation practise.

Before the late 1960s, conservation thinking was largely focussed on the idea that nature is best left to its own devices. This ‘nature for itself‘ framework centred around the value of wilderness and unaltered natural reserves. This viewpoint stemmed from ecological theory and research, however by the 1970s it became apparent that human activities were having severe and worsening impacts on species, and that this framework simply wasn’t enough. This led to a shift in focus towards the threats posed to species by human activities and how to reduce these impacts, a ‘nature despite people‘ approach to conservation. This is the paradigm of protected areas and quotas, designed to reduce threats posed and ensure long-term sustainability.

Changing views of nature and conservation, Mace (2014)

Changing views of nature and conservation, Mace (2014)

By the 1990s, people had begun to appreciate the many and varied roles that healthy ecosystems play in human-wellbeing; ecosystem services are crucial to providing clean water, air, food, minerals and raw materials that sustain human activities. Shifting towards a more holistic, whole-ecosystem viewpoint which attempted to place economic valuations on the services nature provides, conservation thinking entered a ‘nature for people‘ perspective. Within this framework, conservationists began to consider new metrics, such as the minimum viable population size of species and ecosystems, and became concerned with ensuring sustainable harvesting and exploitation. In the last few years, this view has again shifted slightly, this time to a ‘people and nature‘ perspective that values long-term harmonious and sustainable relationships between humans and nature, and which includes more abstract benefits to humans.

Changing conservation paradigms can have a major impact on how we design conservation interventions and what metrics we monitor to assess their success. Standard metrics of conservation, such as the IUCN classification systems, can be easily applied to both a ‘nature for itself’ and a ‘nature despite people’ framework. In contrast, a more economic approach to conservation requires valuations of ecosystems and the services they provide, which is far more complex to measure and calculate. Even more difficult is measuring the non-economic benefits to human well-being that are provided for by nature. The recent focus on these abstract benefits may make the success of conservation interventions more difficult to assess under this framework.

The scientific tools, theory and techniques available to conservation scientists have not always kept up with changing conservation ideologies, and differing perspectives can lead to friction between scientists and policy-makers alike. In the long-term a viewpoint that recognises all of these viewpoints may be the most effective in directing and appraising conservation management. Certainly, greater stability in the way in which we view our place in nature would afford science the opportunity to catch-up and develop effective and empirical metrics that can be meaningfully applied to conservation.

Original Article:

() Science

Extinction and Species Declines:
Defaunation in the Anthropocene

By Claire Asher, on 18 August 2014

We are in the grips of a mass extinction. There have been mass extinctions throughout evolutionary history, what makes this one different is that we’re the ones causing it. A recent review paper from GEE’s Dr Ben Collen discusses the current loss of biodiversity and suggests that our main concerns are species and population declines, which alter ecosystem dynamics and threaten our food, water and health. Understanding the drivers of local declines is more complex than understanding species extinction, but may be more pertinent to our ongoing health and survival.

The history of life on Earth has been punctuated by five mass-extinction events; from the Ordovician-Silurian extinction that killed 85% of sea life 443 million years ago, to the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, mass extinctions have been a part of life. However, we are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re the ones who are causing it. The last 500 years has seen humans cause a wave of extinctions of such speed and magnitude that it rivals the big five extinction events of the past.

Defaunation in the Anthropocene

Like other mass extinctions, the Anthropocene extinction event is affecting all taxonomic groups, although some are being hit harder than others. Since 1500, over 300 terrestrial vertebrates, 90 fish and nearly 400 are known to have been driven to extinction (although the real figures are likely much higher!). A conservative estimate suggests that we may be losing anywhere between 10,000 and 60,000 species each year. Many of these species go extinct before we ever even get a chance to identify them. Extinction is not evenly distributed, though – amphibians appear to be worse affected than birds, for example. Perhaps more worrying, many remaining species are suffering severe population declines. Globally, terrestrial vertebrate populations show declines of 25%, and 67% of monitored invertebrate populations are declining by 45%! The loss of species from ecosystems, either through local population declines or species extinction, will undoubtedly disrupt ecosystem function and the key ecosystem services humans rely on for survival and well being.

Scientists have coined the term ‘defaunation’ to include the extinction of species and populations as well as local declines in abundance. Defaunation can be thought of as deforestation for animals. It is an important point to make that although species extinctions are conspicuous and striking, the real damage to ecosystem function happens a long time before the final extinction event. Declines in populations will alter community composition far more than the final loss of the few remaining individuals of a population, and further, population declines have the potential to be reversed, if we act quickly enough!

Predicting Patterns of Defaunation

If we are to halt or even slow the current mass extinction, we need to identify both the causes of defaunation and the traits that make certain species so vulnerable to human disruption. The main drivers of defaunation are overexploitation of species, habitat destruction and introduced invasive species. These threats have all increased in severity over the past decade and look set to continue. In addition to these long-term threats, climate change is rapidly becoming the biggest threat to biodiversity. Most threatened species are under pressure from multiple human threats, but our understanding of the complex interactions and feedback loops between different threats is still in it’s infancy. It’s clear though that these threats do not act in isolation; a species trying to track suitable habitat as it moves with climate change will find that task much harder if habitat loss and fragmentation is also occurring.

Researchers have highlighted a number of life history and biological traits that tend to make species more vulnerable to human impacts. For example, species that have a small geographic range, large body size and produce just a few offspring after a long-development process, are more likely to be threatened with extinction due to human activities. However, our understanding of the traits that influence species’ extinction risk doesn’t help conservation as much as you might expect, because the relationship between these traits and extinction risk is often idiosyncratic and highly context-dependent. These relationships may also be more variable and weaker for individual populations than for whole species, making population declines more difficult to predict than whole-species extinctions. Defaunation, ultimately, is a synergistic function of the traits a species possess and the nature of the threat(s) it is exposed to.

Disrupting Ecosystems and Communities

The loss of biodiversity through defaunation is not just a concern because of the aesthetic appeal of an individual species, or of a world rich in diversity in general. It is also a major concern because defaunation will likely have a negative impact on the ecosystem goods and services upon which we rely upon for our wellbeing and survival. In fact, biodiversity loss is thought to be comparable to other threats such as pollution in terms of it’s impact on ecosystem function. Defaunation can be expected to have a negative impact on our food, water and health, as well as our psychological wellbeing.


Insect pollination is required for the continued production of 75% of the World’s crops, and is responsible for 10% of the economic value of the entire World’s food supply. Declines in pollinators are now a major problem, particularly in Northern Europe and the USA, and have been linked to declines in insect-pollinated plants. Biodiversity, particularly of small vertebrates, is provides crucial pest control services, valued at around $4.5 billion a year in the USA alone. Declines in small vertebrate populations are linked to cascading changes in the whole ecosystem which allow increases in pest abundance and, consequently, a loss of plant biomass. If the plant in question is a crop or food source, the results can be catastrophic.

Nurtient Cycling and Decomposition

Invertebrates are also very important for their roles in decomposition and nutrient cycling. Defaunation can reduce these important services, and cause changes in the patterns of nutrient cycling that can have knock-on effects on a huge variety of ecosystems. Likewise, large vertebrates that roam large home ranges are important in connecting ecosystems and transferring energy between them, and yet these species are often the most severely impacted by human activities.


Another key ecosystem service is the provision of clean, fresh water. Research has shown that declines in amphibian populations can result in increases in algae, reduced nitrogen uptake and changes to oxygen availability in the water. This too will likely have major knock-on effects for other species (including ourselves!).

Health and Medicine

Finally, we can expect defaunation to negatively affect our health. Species that are more robust to human disturbance are often also better at carrying and transmitting zoonotic diseases (diseases that are carried by animals and transferred to humans), and altering ecosystem dynamics can change behaviours that influence transmission rates. Defaunation is likely to also reduce the availability of pharmaceutical compounds and alter the dynamics of disease regulation. All of this may mean that defaunation leads to an increase disease and a reduction in the availability of therapeutic compounds.

The impact of defaunation is less about the absolute loss of biodiversity and more about the local shifts in species composition and functional groups, which alter ecosystem function and ultimately, our food, water and health. However, reductions in species exploitation and land-use change are two feasible actions that can be achieved rapidly and may buy us enough time to address other drivers of defaunation such as climate change. Globally, we need to reduce and more evenly distribute our consumption if we are to change current trends in defaunation, and open the possibility for refaunation.

Original Article:

() Science


This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPQ), the Foundation for the Development of UNESP, the Sao Paolo Research Foundation, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico/a>.

The Delicate Balance of Effect and Response

By Claire Asher, on 18 February 2014

We may not always be aware of it, but many wild plants, animals, fungi and even bacteria, provide crucial services to us which keep the ecosystems of Earth functioning. Environmental changes caused by human activities are now threatening many species, and those that cannot withstand these changes may be lost forever, potentially taking the services they provide away. New research from GEE and collaborators worldwide aims to improve our understanding of how the traits and evolutionary histories of species influence their ability to provide essential ecosystem services, and to persist in the face of ongoing environmental change.

The diverse array of species we share planet Earth with, and the complex ecosystems they form, are crucial to our continued survival and well being. Species and ecosystems provide a huge number of ‘ecosystem services’ – functions such as nutrient cycling, waste decomposition, pollination and food, to name just a few, which humans rely on. However, many species are now under threat from human activities like deforestation, hunting and pollution. Scientists are working to understand how species and ecosystems will respond to our continued activities in the future, and particularly how this may effect the vital ecosystem services upon which we rely. Recent research by GEE’s Prof. Georgina Mace, in collaboration with researchers from Cordoba National Univerity, Imperial College London, VU University, Yale University and CSIC, has attempted to develop a new framework for risk assessing the effect of human activities on ecosystem services.

The framework considers two key aspects of species: their effect on the generation of a specific ecosystem service (e.g. seed dispersal), and their response to specific environmental pressures (e.g. drought). Both the effect of a species and the response of a species are underpinned by its traits, and each is influenced not by a single trait but a combination of traits. The response of a species will determine it’s ability to survive and flourish through future environmental changes and to continue to provide it’s ecosystem effects. However, only a species’ response is the subject of natural selection, via changes to the underlying traits; the effect of a species is merely a biproduct of traits selected for their influence on survival. In this way, the aspects of a species’ biology upon which we rely are only indirectly influenced by natural selection, and will only be maintained if the traits that generate them are beneficial through the environmental changes we cause. The framework developed by GEE researchers and collaborators considers how the response of species to envinmental stressors interacts with the effect of that species on key ecosystem services, and whether species with a large effect are more or less vulnerable to environmental change.

A third key factor influencing the sensitivity of ecosystem system services is the evolutionary relationships between species providing them. Closely related species often share similar traits, which may or may not result in them having similar effects and responses. If this is the case, then ecosystems in which a particular service is provided by a group of closely related species may be more vulnerable to environmental change, since those species may well share similar responses, and be sensitive to similar environmental pressures. Although many species’ traits are known to be similar amongst related species, because effects and responses are each the result of a combination of traits, it is not known whether this relationship is also common for these variables.

The new framework developed by GEE’s Professor Georgina Mace and collaborators attempts to address this by incorporating evolutionary relationships (phylogeny) into their response-effect model, and applying this model to 5 case studies. The case studies cover 5 species assemblages including a total of 480 species in Europe, Central America and Africa, for which response and effects could be estimated based on past studies of species’ traits and vulnerabilities. The case studies tended to show a strong relationship between phylogeny and both species’ effects on ecosystem services and their responses to environmental stressors. This indeed suggests that ecosystem services that rely upon closely related groups of species may be most at risk from environmental change. Cases where effects and responses are negatively correlated, so that the most influential species in terms of a given ecosystem service are also the most vulnerable to environmental stress, are most vulnerable to loss of that ecosystem service through human activities. Whether this type of relationship is common in nature remains to be investigated by future studies, and this framework provides a powerful basis with which to do so.

Our relentless demands on the natural world are inevitably leading to new pressures and stresses on natural populations, and it is of great concern that these pressures may negatively impact on the vital ecosystem services that we rely upon, often without even realising it. Ecosystem services provide us with food and fresh water, decompose our waste, recycle nutrients and remove harmful toxins. Without them our continued survival and well being would be seriously compromised. Scientists are still working to understand how species’ traits influence their ability to provide ecosystem services and their resilience to ongoing environmmental change. A new framework developed in collaboration between universities in the UK, Spain, Argentina, the USA and the Netherlands is beginning to shed light on the interaction between species’ traits, their effect on ecosystem services and their response to environmental change, and how these factors are influenced by evolutionary relationships between species. This framework offers a powerful new view of how the traits of species within an ecosystem translate into the ecosystem services upon which we are so reliant, and future research building upon this framework promises to improve our understanding of ecosystem services and environmental change.

Original Article:

() Ecology and Evolution

This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Leverhulme Trust, and the US National Science Foundation

Predicting the Future of Biodiversity

By Claire Asher, on 14 August 2013

As human populations expand and use the land differently, they are having an impact on the plants and animals that share that land with them. Conservation biologists have been working for decades to try and document the ways in which these changes are affecting species, and to try and develop indicators that can be used to monitor these changes over time. However, previous work has tended to focus on certain species (e.g. bats, birds), neglecting other important groups such as insects, and have been biased towards certain habitats (e.g. tropical rainforest).

A new project in partnership between University College London, Imperial College London, the University of Sussex, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center and Microsoft Research, aims to improve on previous studies and develop a model for understanding how whole biological communities respond to human pressures across the globe. Collating high-quality data from hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, in addition to unpublished data direct from field researchers, the PREDICTS team hope to investigate local patterns of biodiversity at a global scale, and improve our understanding of how whole ecosystems respond to human pressures such as land-use change.

Biodiversity Declines
IMG_5921Major global loss of biodiversity is underway, and we have good reason to believe humans are responsible. The current extinction rate of species is estimated to be 1000 times higher than long-term historical averages, although large fluctuations in this in the past were also common. Humans have altered the world enormously, converting forests and savannas into farmland and housing. Virtually all ecosystems have been changed substantially – most biomes have lost between 20 and 50% of land to human uses. Humans have also exploited natural resources for wood, food, medicine and social reasons, and in many cases overexploitation has lead to major species declines and extinctions. Globally, it is estimated that 12% of bird species, 23% of mammals and 32% of amphibians are threatened with extinction, with many of these species suffering population declines and a reduction in genetic diversity, which may exacerbate the effect of human impacts. Even optimistic projections indicate continued human pressure on biodiversity from a range of different sources including hunting and habitat destruction. Many of the pressures currently placed on global biodiversity, such as land-use change, pollution and the introduction of invasive species, are set to continue or intensify over coming decades.

Ecosystem Services
Biodiversity is a valuable asset to humans for many reasons, not least its considerable economic value. Biodiversity contributes to human well-being by providing ecosystem services such as food (crops and livestock), fresh water, timber, natural hazard protection, air quality, climate regulation, prevention of erosion, as well as cultural benefits such as the aesthetic and recreational use of biodiversity. The exact relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services is still relatively poorly understood, as it represents a complex interaction of many factors, which may vary from habitat to habitat. Many researchers suspect there may be threshold effects, with a sudden collapse of ecosystems, and a consequent loss of the services they provide, once a threshold number of species is lost. Others suggest certain ‘keystone’ species may be more important for ecosystem function. What is clear, however, is that healthy, functioning ecosystems are key to human health and well being. A greater understanding both of how biodiversity contributes to ecosystem function and ecosystem services, and of how biodiversity is likely to respond to continued anthropogenic pressures is sorely needed.

Improving Indicators
DSC_1216_watermarkOne central issue to studying and increasing our understanding of how ecosystems respond to human pressures is selecting species, populations or ecosystems to act as indicators of overall trends. It is simply not possible to monitor all populations of all species, and conservationists have traditionally relied upon indicator species and ecosystems as a measure of the overall health of biodiversity. In many cases these indicators were initially selected out of convenience meaning that well-studied species, communities and biomes are hugely overrepresented in the data available. However, species’ traits are likely to influence how they respond to human pressures, and a broader geographical and taxonomic view is needed to take the next step in our understanding.

Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity in Changing Terrestrial Systems
The PREDICTS project aims to address some of these issues by performing a meta-analysis of species responses to different human pressures, covering as broad a taxonomic and geographical data set as is available. The PREDICTS team are collecting data from published papers; however, they also hope to draw on rich datasets held by ecologists which are simply too large to have been published in full. If you are an ecologist and believe you may have data that could be used for this project, please visit the PREDICTS website to find out more. They have already collated over 800,000 biodiversity records covering more than 15,000 species. These data are being combined to form a database that will be used to answer a number of key questions about biodiversity and anthropogenic change. In particular, the PREDICTS project is interested in investigating how different taxonomic groups respond, how responses differ in different biomes and with different intensities of human pressure. They also plan to investigate how different measures of biodiversity (e.g. species richness, evenness, abundance etc) may respond differently in different species, regions and for different human pressures.

_DSC3418_watermarkBy combining data from many species and sites, across a variety of different intensities of human pressure, PREDICTS hopes to develop a deeper understanding of how different factors interact to determine species responses. From this they hope to make predictions about how biodiversity may respond to different projected future scenarios, and thus provide insights for science policy.

Turning Science into Policy
We are faced with an increasingly difficult global situation, as human populations expand, the climate changes and biodiversity declines. What makes this situation more difficult still is that we need to make decisions now and over the next few years that will impact a generation, but for which we still have insufficient data to know for sure what’s best. Making projections for climate change, human population expansions and changes in the exploitation of biodiversity is difficult. Making projections for how biodiversity will respond to those changes is even more difficult still, but it is a task we must attempt if we are to make informed decisions about the future of our planet. PREDICTS hopes to utilise what data we do have to make synthesise a more in depth and holistic understanding of how ecological communities respond to human impacts, which can be used to make predictions that will help inform science policy makers globally.



Images copyright Lawrence Hudson and Tim Newbold, used with permission.

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