New conservation map maximizes biodiversity

An international team of researchers that includes U-M biologist Ronald Nussbaum has developed a remarkable new road map for finding and protecting thousands of rare species that live only in Madagascar, considered one of the most significant biodiversity hot spots in the world.

The plan and the methods used to develop it are described in the April 11 issue of the journal Science.
Western Wooly Lemurs, such as the pair shown here, are found in the dry, deciduous forests of Western Madagascar. (Photo by Edward E. Louis Jr.)

The analysis included more than 2,300 species found only in the vast area of Madagascar — a 226,642-square-mile island nation in the Indian Ocean. Centralizing and analyzing the sheer quantity of available data to develop a map of conservation priorities provided an unprecedented challenge.

First, researchers collected highly detailed data to learn the exact locations of thousands of animal and plant species across the island. The team then used software specially developed for this project, in collaboration with a computer science researcher at AT&T, to estimate the complete range of each species. A separate optimization program, customized for this project by researchers at Finland's Helsinki University, was used next to identify which regions are most vital for saving the greatest number of species. 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.

"Never before have biologists and policy makers had the tools that allow analysis of such a broad range of species, at such fine scale, over this large a geographic area," says project co-leader Claire Kremen of the University of California, Berkeley. "Our analysis raises the bar on what's possible in conservation planning and helps decision makers determine the most important places to protect."

Some surprising areas emerged as conservation priorities, including coastal forests and central mountain ranges, which had large concentrations of endemic species. Such regions, the researchers noted, historically have been neglected in favor of large tracts of forest.

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.