It’s time to strengthen the macroecology–conservation practice interface (commentary)

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  • Imagine being able to know how many individual organisms occur at any given time across areas as large as whole continents or even the entire globe. Though satellites may one day enable us to obtain this information directly, a sub-discipline of ecology — macroecology — currently represents the main tool to generate those estimates.
  • With biodiversity under increasing pressure from human activities, macroecology can contribute greatly to the scientific evidence base for national and international decisions aimed at conserving biodiversity and ensuring a safe future for our planet.
  • Yet, examples of macroecological research directly supporting conservation decisions remain rare. Why does a sizeable macroecology-conservation practice gap persist?
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Imagine being able to know how many individual organisms occur at any given time across areas as large as whole continents or even the entire globe. Though satellites may one day enable us to obtain this information directly, a sub-discipline of ecology — macroecology — currently represents the main tool to generate those estimates.

Macroecology attempts to identify patterns that might be universal across ecosystems in order to explain and predict the abundance, distribution, and diversity of organisms at large spatial scales in the past, present, or future. For instance, macroecological models have been used to estimate that around 305,000 arthropod species inhabit Amazonia, that 5 percent of all extant mammal species remain undescribed, and that Earth is home to approximately 8.7 million eukaryotic species and as many as 1 trillion microbial species.

With biodiversity under increasing pressure from human activities, macroecology can contribute greatly to the scientific evidence base for national and international decisions aimed at conserving biodiversity and ensuring a safe future for our planet.

First, its large-scale “macro” focus makes macroecology the tool of choice for regional, national, or global biodiversity assessments — much like macro-economics is the tool to study the behavior of regional, national, or global economies. Second, its emphasis on generating predictions over both space and time makes macroecology an ideal tool to forecast the future of biodiversity under environmental change. Finally, its embrace of “big data” approaches to generate large-scale predictions make macroecology an ideal tool for stimulating the uptake of cutting-edge data analysis and visualization methods in conservation.

Combined, these three features make macroecology a unique and timely tool with the potential to provide key contributions to conservation practice and policy, such as detecting biodiversity trends, forecasting responses to climate and land use change, and identifying priority regions for conservation.

Yet, examples of macroecological research directly supporting conservation decisions remain rare. This is not due to a lack of motivation on both parts. On one hand, conservation practitioners and policy makers welcome robust scientific evidence to back their decisions and, increasingly, require evidence across large spatial and temporal scales (i.e. over the last/next 50-100 years). On the other hand, macroecological research is increasingly inspired by conservation applications, with many macroecologists aspiring for their research to be implemented in practice. So why does a sizeable macroecology-conservation practice gap persist?

For one thing, large-scale predictions of complex ecosystems do not come without significant uncertainty. Moreover, generating such predictions often requires quantitatively complex methods, which can be challenging to understand. Together, these attributes might lead to skepticism about the use of macroecological research in support of important conservation decisions.

In a recent paper, I argue that these perceived issues can be overcome by careful repackaging of macroecological research findings for conservation decision makers. Uncertainty and complexity are not issues in themselves — decisions can and frequently do happen under considerable uncertainty and without a full understanding of all processes underlying the available information. For instance, complex and uncertain algorithm predictions support important decisions across sectors as diverse as health care, transportation, food supply, and criminal justice. Therefore, there is no reason why, at least in principle, conservation decisions could not also benefit from similar methods.

Indeed, macroecological model predictions can at least provide first approximations of expected outcomes, pinpoint instances where more information will be required, and draw attention to particular areas or species. The key is to be transparent about prediction uncertainty and to highlight situations where uncertainty may be more or less relevant to given decisions. Ultimately, this will require macroecologists to adopt clear and concise research documentation standards explicitly aimed at conservation practitioners. Such documentation standards will also help practitioners grasp the complexity of the methods, by developing expectations of which information about the approach can readily be found and where.

However, there are bigger challenges to the implementation of macroecological research into conservation practice. Documentation standards can improve the uptake of macroecological research only if the research is both accessible and relevant to practitioners. Unfortunately, the absence of a two-way flow of knowledge between macroecologists and conservation decision makers means that much conservation-inspired macroecological research falls short of being useful in practice, while research topics useful in practice remain unexplored.

Facilitating a two-way flow of knowledge between macroecologists and conservation decision makers will necessitate the creation of boundary-spanning organizations and individual positions at the macroecology-conservation interface. Boundary-spanning organizations could include dedicated think tanks, special interest groups, research projects, institutes, and even informal meetings among as few as two individuals. Boundary-spanning individual positions could include knowledge brokers, who combine PhD-level macroecological expertise with experience in a relevant regulatory setting and whose roles include synthesizing and translating scientific evidence, analyzing and evaluating policy, and working with stakeholders directly. Funding for these boundary-spanning activities could be shared among existing government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and/or environmental consultancies.

Planning the road ahead for biodiversity conservation and human well-being will require gathering all relevant information to make the best informed decisions. As macroecology approaches its 30th anniversary, it is now time to recognize its potentially key role in conservation and significantly develop the macroecology–conservation practice interface.

Wildebeests photographed after having crossed the river Mara from Serengeti to the Mara during the Great Wildebeest Migration. Macroecology is the study of relationships between organisms and their environment at large spatial scales. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

CITATIONS

• Fisher, M. A., Vinson, J. E., Gittleman, J. L., & Drake, J. M. (2018). The description and number of undiscovered mammal species. Ecology and evolution, 8(7), 3628-3635. doi:10.1002/ece3.3724

• Harte, J., & Kitzes, J. (2015). Inferring regional-scale species diversity from small-plot censuses. PloS one, 10(2), e0117527. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117527

• Hoskins, A. J., Harwood, T. D., Ware, C., Williams, K. J., Perry, J. J., Ota, N., … & Purvis, A. (2018). Supporting global biodiversity assessment through high-resolution macroecological modelling: Methodological underpinnings of the BILBI framework. bioRxiv, 309377. doi:10.1101/309377

• Jetz, W., Wilcove, D. S., & Dobson, A. P. (2007). Projected impacts of climate and land-use change on the global diversity of birds. PLoS biology, 5(6), e157. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050157

• Locey, K. J., & Lennon, J. T. (2016). Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(21), 5970-5975. doi:10.1073/pnas.1521291113

• Mokany, K., Westcott, D. A., Prasad, S., Ford, A. J., & Metcalfe, D. J. (2014). Identifying priority areas for conservation and management in diverse tropical forests. PLoS One, 9(2), e89084. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089084

• Mora, C., Tittensor, D. P., Adl, S., Simpson, A. G., & Worm, B. (2011). How many species are there on Earth and in the ocean?. PLoS biology, 9(8), e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127

• Rapacciuolo, G. (2018) Strengthening the contribution of macroecological models to conservation practice. Global Ecology and Biogeography. Online Early. doi: 10.1111/geb.12848

• Tallis, H. M., Hawthorne, P. L., Polasky, S., Reid, J., Beck, M. W., Brauman, K., … & Clark, A. An attainable global vision for conservation and human well‐being. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. doi:10.1002/fee.1965

Giovanni Rapacciuolo is a biodiversity data scientist and macroecologist. His work at the macroecology–conservation practice interface takes advantage of emerging approaches for analyzing and visualizing big datasets to improve our predictive understanding of large-scale biodiversity change and support conservation decisions. Giovanni is currently a Research Scientist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Find out more about Giovanni at giorapacciuolo.com.

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