Beyond species counts: Using evolutionary history to inform conservation

September 03, 2015

Earth's species are disappearing at an astonishing--and troubling--rate. As human activity continues to put pressure on ecosystems around the world, the rate of loss continues to climb. How we slow this devastating loss and protect the enormous number of species on Earth is of considerable importance, and debate.

Unfortunately, it is not feasible to simply protect everything. Limited funds require conservation planners and policy makers to prioritize the preservation of specific regions and ecosystems. An often-used strategy is to identify areas of high species richness and high endemicity--a region containing a high proportion of species that are found nowhere else in the world--in order to set conservation priorities.

This, and other long-used approaches, have a major shortcoming, though: they ignore evolutionary history.

"By not considering diversity resulting from evolutionary history, current biodiversity assessments may be overlooking unique and important regions for conservation," explains Dr. Roxanne Kellar, lead author of a recent study aimed at testing different assessment tools and biodiversity metrics. The study--a collaboration between scientists at the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri--is freely available in a recent issue of Applications in Plant Sciences.

Despite strong arguments to incorporate evolutionary history into conservation strategies, phylogenetic diversity metrics have not been widely adopted by conservation planners. "The goal of our research is to provide empirical tests of the many tools available to ecologists and conservation planners and to provide potential users the means to decide which metrics are most useful in their particular situation," says Kellar.

Kellar and colleagues tested a dozen commonly used phylogenetic diversity metrics, focusing on two large flowering plant families found in prairie ecosystems: the sunflower and pea families. Their results highlight the differences between biodiversity metrics and the difficulties of obtaining sufficient data to accurately calculate these metrics.

The most challenging aspect of calculating phylogenetic diversity metrics is the acquisition of a phylogeny, or evolutionary tree, for the area of interest. Researchers must sample a large percentage of the species present in the area under investigation and obtain the same set of genes for each of these species.

"There is a misconception about the availability of data in online sequence repositories such as GenBank," says Kellar. "Although this is an enormous, and important, resource for genetic data, it is often insufficient for accurately calculating biodiversity metrics, leaving researchers to generate this data themselves."

However, once a phylogeny is obtained, it is fairly simple to calculate all of the metrics. Kellar and colleagues are optimistic, "As more sequence data are generated from high-throughput sequencing and more phylogenies are published across the tree of life, calculating multiple, reliable biodiversity metrics will become increasingly routine."
P. Roxanne (Steele) Kellar, Dakota L. Ahrendsen, Shelly K. Aust, Amanda R. Jones, and J. Chris Pires. 2015. Biodiversity comparison among phylogenetic diversity metrics and between three North American prairies. Applications in Plant Sciences 3(7): 1400108. doi:10.3732/apps.1400108

Applications in Plant Sciences (APPS) is a monthly, peer-reviewed, open access journal focusing on new tools, technologies, and protocols in all areas of the plant sciences. It is published by the Botanical Society of America, a nonprofit membership society with a mission to promote botany, the field of basic science dealing with the study and inquiry into the form, function, development, diversity, reproduction, evolution, and uses of plants and their interactions within the biosphere. APPS is available as part of BioOne's Open Access collection.

For further information, please contact the APPS staff at

Botanical Society of America

Related Conservation Articles from Brightsurf:

New guide on using drones for conservation
Drones are a powerful tool for conservation - but they should only be used after careful consideration and planning, according to a new report.

Elephant genetics guide conservation
A large-scale study of African elephant genetics in Tanzania reveals the history of elephant populations, how they interact, and what areas may be critical to conserve in order to preserve genetic diversity of the species.

Measuring the true cost of conservation
BU Professor created the first high-resolution map of land value in the United states.

Environmental groups moving beyond conservation
Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become powerful voices in world environmental politics, little is known of the global picture of this sector.

Hunting for the next generation of conservation stewards
Wildlife ecology students become the professionals responsible for managing the biodiversity of natural systems for species conservation.

Conservation research on lynx
Scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and the Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (Leibniz-FMP) discovered that selected anti-oxidative enzymes, especially the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD2), may play an important role to maintain the unusual longevity of the corpus luteum in lynxes.

New 'umbrella' species would massively improve conservation
The protection of Australia's threatened species could be improved by a factor of seven, if more efficient 'umbrella' species were prioritised for protection, according to University of Queensland research.

Trashed farmland could be a conservation treasure
Low-productivity agricultural land could be transformed into millions of hectares of conservation reserve across the world, according to University of Queensland-led research.

Bats in attics might be necessary for conservation
Researchers investigate and describe the conservation importance of buildings relative to natural, alternative roosts for little brown bats in Yellowstone National Park.

Applying biodiversity conservation research in practice
One million species are threatened with extinction, many of them already in the coming decades.

Read More: Conservation News and Conservation Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to