New Madagascar Conservation Map

An inter­na­tional team of researchers has devel­oped a remark­able new roadmap for find­ing and pro­tect­ing the best remain­ing hold­outs for thou­sands of rare species that live only in Mada­gas­car, con­sid­ered one of the most sig­nif­i­cant bio­di­ver­sity hot spots in the world.

In their con­ser­va­tion plan, the researchers, led by con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, not only included lemurs — those large-eyed, tree-hopping pri­mates that have become poster chil­dren for con­ser­va­tion — but also species of ants, but­ter­flies, frogs, geckos and plants.

Alto­gether, more than 2,300 species found only in the vast area of Mada­gas­car — a 226,642-square-mile (587,000-square-kilometer) island nation in the Indian Ocean — were included in the analy­sis. Cen­tral­iz­ing and ana­lyz­ing the sheer quan­tity of data avail­able to develop a map of con­ser­va­tion pri­or­i­ties pro­vided an unprece­dented ana­lyt­i­cal chal­lenge. The results are described in the April 11 issue of the jour­nal Science.

First, a mas­sive team of researchers col­lected highly detailed data to learn the exact loca­tions of thou­sands of ani­mal and plant species across the island. The researchers 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 soft­ware, 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,” said Claire Kre­men, UC Berke­ley assis­tant pro­fes­sor of con­ser­va­tion biol­ogy and the project’s co-lead researcher. “Our analy­sis raises the bar on what’s pos­si­ble in con­ser­va­tion plan­ning, and helps deci­sion mak­ers deter­mine the most impor­tant places to protect.”

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.

“Pre­serv­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the midst of tremen­dous pres­sures, such as habi­tat destruc­tion and global warm­ing, is one of humanity’s great­est envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges in the 21st cen­tury,” said Kre­men, who worked on this project with New York-based Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety, where she is an asso­ciate con­ser­va­tion­ist. “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.”

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 diver­sity of Mada­gas­car is not yell well under­stood, as a large num­ber of species has been recently described, and new dis­cov­er­ies are made every year,” said study co-author David Vieites, a post­doc­toral fel­low at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Ver­te­brate Zool­ogy and in the Depart­ment of Inte­gra­tive Biol­ogy. “For exam­ple, since our study began three years ago, some 50 new species of amphib­ians were dis­cov­ered. Sadly, because of the high rate of habi­tat destruc­tion, huge num­bers of species will go extinct before sci­en­tists have a chance to doc­u­ment them.”

Fresh atten­tion was paid to Mada­gas­car when, in 2003, the country’s gov­ern­ment announced an ambi­tious goal of tripling its exist­ing 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.

“Mada­gas­car is one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world, which makes the government’s com­mit­ment to bio­di­ver­sity even more remark­able,” said Ali­son Cameron, co-lead researcher of the project, and post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence, Pol­icy & Man­age­ment. “Gov­ern­ment lead­ers have devel­oped a very pro­gres­sive vision for social and eco­nomic devel­op­ment, in which the nat­ural land­scape is viewed as a valu­able resource”

The MacArthur Foun­da­tion sup­ported this project with a joint grant to UC Berke­ley and the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety, whose staff in Mada­gas­car work with gov­ern­ment offi­cials there to incor­po­rate the results of this study into con­ser­va­tion pol­icy. The Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety has already estab­lished sev­eral new pro­tected areas within the country.

Ulti­mately, a diverse group of 22 researchers from muse­ums, zoos, herbaria, uni­ver­si­ties, non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions and indus­try con­tributed to this new analy­sis. The authors received help from an addi­tional 62 non-authored col­lab­o­ra­tors who, in turn, were part of much larger research teams that col­lected the data used in this study.

Another co-author affil­i­ated with UC Berke­ley is Brian Fisher, an adjunct pro­fes­sor at the campus’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence, Pol­icy & Man­age­ment and chair of ento­mol­ogy at the Cal­i­for­nia Acad­emy of Sciences.

For their analy­sis, the researchers uti­lized decades worth of field data painstak­ingly col­lected through­out Mada­gas­car by intre­pid biologists.

“Sim­ply iden­ti­fy­ing the species on the island and deter­min­ing where they are located is very dif­fi­cult,” said Kre­men. “The ter­rain is rough, there are few roads, and we often had to hike 18 miles (30 kilo­me­ters) to get to the field site. Once there, we’d live for months in a tent under a tarp, endur­ing leeches and tor­ren­tial rain­falls, eat­ing rice and beans, to doc­u­ment the range of ani­mal and plant species in a spe­cific area. This is truly hard-won data.”

The rich data source allowed the researchers to map out the habi­tat of 2,300 species through­out every square kilo­me­ter of the island. “We spend years of our lives col­lect­ing this data, and peo­ple some­times won­der why we do it,” said Kre­men, who per­son­ally spent the greater part of eight years pri­mar­ily col­lect­ing field data in Mada­gas­car. “It is grat­i­fy­ing to know that the data col­lected may lit­er­ally put some species on the map for protection.”

Based upon this work, 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, have his­tor­i­cally been neglected in favor of large tracts of forest.

“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,” said Cameron, who also pro­vides tech­ni­cal advice to the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety and the gov­ern­ment of Mada­gas­car. “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 set by the gov­ern­ment. This is a huge shift in approach, made pos­si­ble through advances in com­puter tech­nol­ogy that allowed us to cen­tral­ize such a large amount of data and to ana­lyze it all together.”

The researchers noted that sim­i­larly rich sources of data exist in other parts of the world, and that their method of analy­sis could be eas­ily trans­ferred to other high pri­or­ity regions for conservation.

An inter­na­tional team of researchers has devel­oped a remark­able new roadmap for find­ing and pro­tect­ing the best remain­ing hold­outs for thou­sands of rare species that live only in Mada­gas­car, con­sid­ered one of the most sig­nif­i­cant bio­di­ver­sity hot spots in the world.

In their con­ser­va­tion plan, the researchers, led by con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, not only included lemurs—those large-eyed, tree-hopping pri­mates that have become poster chil­dren for conservation—but also species of ants, but­ter­flies, frogs, geckos and plants.

Alto­gether, more than 2,300 species found only in the vast area of Madagascar—a 226,642-square-mile (587,000-square-kilometer) island nation in the Indian Ocean—were included in the analy­sis. Cen­tral­iz­ing and ana­lyz­ing the sheer quan­tity of data avail­able to develop a map of con­ser­va­tion pri­or­i­ties pro­vided an unprece­dented ana­lyt­i­cal chal­lenge. The results are described in the April 11 issue of the jour­nal Science.

First, a mas­sive team of researchers col­lected highly detailed data to learn the exact loca­tions of thou­sands of ani­mal and plant species across the island. The researchers 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 soft­ware, 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,” said Claire Kre­men, UC Berke­ley assis­tant pro­fes­sor of con­ser­va­tion biol­ogy and the project’s co-lead researcher. “Our analy­sis raises the bar on what’s pos­si­ble in con­ser­va­tion plan­ning, and helps deci­sion mak­ers deter­mine the most impor­tant places to protect.”

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.

“Pre­serv­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the midst of tremen­dous pres­sures, such as habi­tat destruc­tion and global warm­ing, is one of humanity’s great­est envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges in the 21st cen­tury,” said Kre­men, who worked on this project with New York-based Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety, where she is an asso­ciate con­ser­va­tion­ist. “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.”

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 diver­sity of Mada­gas­car is not yell well under­stood, as a large num­ber of species has been recently described, and new dis­cov­er­ies are made every year,” said study co-author David Vieites, a post­doc­toral fel­low at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Ver­te­brate Zool­ogy and in the Depart­ment of Inte­gra­tive Biol­ogy. “For exam­ple, since our study began three years ago, some 50 new species of amphib­ians were dis­cov­ered. Sadly, because of the high rate of habi­tat destruc­tion, huge num­bers of species will go extinct before sci­en­tists have a chance to doc­u­ment them.”

Fresh atten­tion was paid to Mada­gas­car when, in 2003, the country’s gov­ern­ment announced an ambi­tious goal of tripling its exist­ing 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.

“Mada­gas­car is one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world, which makes the government’s com­mit­ment to bio­di­ver­sity even more remark­able,” said Ali­son Cameron, co-lead researcher of the project, and post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence, Pol­icy & Man­age­ment. “Gov­ern­ment lead­ers have devel­oped a very pro­gres­sive vision for social and eco­nomic devel­op­ment, in which the nat­ural land­scape is viewed as a valu­able resource.”

The MacArthur Foun­da­tion sup­ported this project with a joint grant to UC Berke­ley and the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety, whose staff in Mada­gas­car work with gov­ern­ment offi­cials there to incor­po­rate the results of this study into con­ser­va­tion pol­icy. The Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety has already estab­lished sev­eral new pro­tected areas within the country.

Ulti­mately, a diverse group of 22 researchers from muse­ums, zoos, herbaria, uni­ver­si­ties, non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions and indus­try con­tributed to this new analy­sis. The authors received help from an addi­tional 62 non-authored col­lab­o­ra­tors who, in turn, were part of much larger research teams that col­lected the data used in this study.

Another co-author affil­i­ated with UC Berke­ley is Brian Fisher, an adjunct pro­fes­sor at the campus’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence, Pol­icy & Man­age­ment and chair of ento­mol­ogy at the Cal­i­for­nia Acad­emy of Sciences.

For their analy­sis, the researchers uti­lized decades worth of field data painstak­ingly col­lected through­out Mada­gas­car by intre­pid biologists.

“Sim­ply iden­ti­fy­ing the species on the island and deter­min­ing where they are located is very dif­fi­cult,” said Kre­men. “The ter­rain is rough, there are few roads, and we often had to hike 18 miles (30 kilo­me­ters) to get to the field site. Once there, we’d live for months in a tent under a tarp, endur­ing leeches and tor­ren­tial rain­falls, eat­ing rice and beans, to doc­u­ment the range of ani­mal and plant species in a spe­cific area. This is truly hard-won data.”

The rich data source allowed the researchers to map out the habi­tat of 2,300 species through­out every square kilo­me­ter of the island. “We spend years of our lives col­lect­ing this data, and peo­ple some­times won­der why we do it,” said Kre­men, who per­son­ally spent the greater part of eight years pri­mar­ily col­lect­ing field data in Mada­gas­car. “It is grat­i­fy­ing to know that the data col­lected may lit­er­ally put some species on the map for protection.”

Based upon this work, 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, have his­tor­i­cally been neglected in favor of large tracts of forest.

“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,” said Cameron, who also pro­vides tech­ni­cal advice to the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety and the gov­ern­ment of Mada­gas­car. “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 set by the gov­ern­ment. This is a huge shift in approach, made pos­si­ble through advances in com­puter tech­nol­ogy that allowed us to cen­tral­ize such a large amount of data and to ana­lyze it all together.”

The researchers noted that sim­i­larly rich sources of data exist in other parts of the world, and that their method of analy­sis could be eas­ily trans­ferred to other high pri­or­ity regions for conservation.

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