44% of Earth’s land surface must receive conservation attention to stop the biodiversity crisis

The minimum land area requiring conservation attention to safeguard biodiversity

James R. Allan, Hugh P. Possingham, Scott C. Atkinson, Anthony Waldron, Moreno Di Marco, Stuart H.M. Butchart, Vanessa M. Adams, W. Daniel Kissling, Thomas Worsdell, Chris Sandbrook, Gwill Gibbon, Kundan Kumar, Piyush Mehta, Martine Maron, Brooke A. Williams, Kendall R. Jones, Brendan A. Wintle, April E. Reside, James E. M. Watson. 

Summarized by Michael Hallinan

What data were used? No new data was generated for this study, instead already existing data from different sources was combined in a new way. Spatial data about existing protected areas, key biodiversity areas, and ecologically intact areas was taken from the World Database on Protected Areas from February 2020 and 2017. In addition, data from the September 2019 version of the World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas was used, as well as animal distribution data from IUCN Red List and the BirdLife International Handbook. All this data was then merged to create an existing guide to important conservation areas as well as biodiversity. This is necessary to determine the existing species health and eventually predict future species health.

Methods: Using the animal distribution data, targets were set for what percentage needs to be conserved based on the range and quantity of each of the groups such as freshwater crabs, terrestrial mammals, and birds. Following this, an analysis on each species range and the determined important conservation areas was performed to identify what additional range may be needed as well as a potential lack of species in those areas. Then, a series of optimization analyses was performed on 30 x 30 km land units to determine which land would need to be conserved to reach those targets. Factors like cost, historical inquiry, human development, and the inability to perform agriculture as a result of conservation were also estimated. Finally, after all these considerations, potential areas for future conservation efforts were identified and outlined as different components. There are four components: Protected areas, which are areas outlined for general conservation; Key Biodiverse areas, which is land labeled for conservation of specific biodiversity; Ecologically Intact communities are ecological land which contain all the expected species within the ecosystem; and Conservation Priorities, which is land that requires conservation attention.

Results: Ultimately, the study estimates that the minimum land area that needs conservation attention to safeguard biodiversity is 64.7 million square kilometers (~24.9 million square miles), or roughly 44% of Earth’s terrestrial area. This 64.7 million comprises 35.1 million km of ecologically intact areas, 20.5 million of already existing protected areas, 11.6 million of key biodiversity areas, and 12.4 million km of additional land needed to promote species wellness in the smallest range possible. As for specific regions, this means 64% of the land in North America, and at least 33.1% of Europe’s land needs to be protected.

In addition to these spatial statistics, it’s also found that currently 1.87 billion people live on land that needs conservation attention, or approximately 24% of the world’s population with Africa, Asia, and Central America being the most affected due to high population density.  Approximately 55% of this land is located in developed economies such as Canada or Germany. As for the animal targets themselves, amphibians, reptiles, and freshwater animals were found to be below even half the target population . On the other hand, birds and mammals were found to be between 50 and 75% of the target population.

A map of the world, where terrestrial land is marked with protected areas, key biodiversity areas, ecologically intact areas, and additional conservation priorities identified. North America features many areas of key biodiversity with much of the United States being labeled as additional conservation priorities, specifically along the coast and the south-east. Canada is overwhelmingly labeled as ecologically intact with some already protected areas and some key biodiversity areas. Central America is heavily labeled as in need of conservation priorities with a relatively-high quantity of key biodiversity areas. South America consists of heavily protected areas in the Amazonas with many areas of additional conservation priorities along the coasts, and some key biodiversity areas. Large parts of identified areas in Europe are already protected, with some new conservation priorities near coastal regions and eastern Europe such as Belarus. Africa is mainly ecologically intact with the Sahara desert in the north, anda diverse mixture of protected areas, additional conservation priority areas, and key biodiversity areas across the whole continent. Next, Oceania has a large quantity comprising mostly protected areas and ecologically intact areas in central Australia with additional conservation priorities identified around the coast and neighboring island nations. Lastly, Asia is heavily ecologically intact towards the northern part of Russia, and becomes a mixture of protected areas, ecologically intact, and a heavy quantity of conservation priority areas as you go from the southern part of Russia through the rest of the continent. It’s also notable that China contains a large amount of the protected areas in the Himalayas.
This graph shows the protected areas (light blue), Key Biodiversity Areas (purple), and ecologically intact areas (dark blue), as well as new conservation priorities (green). The Venn Diagram to the left shows proportional overlap between features, showing that the majority of both the ecologically intact areas as well as the key biodiversity areas are currently not yet protected.

Why is this study important?: Land loss and conversion is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. As climate change increases and human development expands, plants and animals become increasingly threatened and infringed upon leading to potential permanent damage, loss of life, and possibly even extinction. By performing studies like these, we can identify what areas are especially valuable, create action plans to remediate damage and support existing animal biodiversity.

This study identifies not only the amount of land needed, but also suggests where specific conservation attention needs to be focussed, as well as economic and social considerations that should be taken into account. In addition it needs to be kept in mind that historically, some conservation actions have adversely affected Indigienous people, Afro-descendants, and other local communities such as forcible removal of native populations off land in the name of conservation. By considering all of the social, economic, scientific, and historical factors that affect this issue, we can support the world around us better. 

The Big Picture: To safeguard biodiversity throughout future years, conservation attention needs to be given to an estimated minimum of 64.7 million square kilometers or roughly 44% of the Earth’s terrestrial land. This was estimated through mapping and data analysis of existing protected areas and existing species distribution data, which was then viewed on a global scale. Amphibians, reptiles, and freshwater animals are the furthest from the targets they need to meet to survive in the long run.The majority of the land which needs the most conservation efforts appears in developed nations. 

Citation: Allan, J.R., Possingham, H.P., Atkinson, S.C., Waldron, A., Di Marco, M., Butchart, S.H., Adams, V.M., Kissling, W.D., Worsdell, T., Sandbrook, C. and Gibbon, G., 2022. The minimum land area requiring conservation attention to safeguard biodiversity. Science376(6597), pp.1094-1101.

Climate Change Very Likely to Slow Plant Growth in Northern Hemisphere

Future reversal of warming-enhanced vegetation productivity in the Northern Hemisphere

By: Yichen Zhang, Shillong Piao, Yan Sun, Brendan M. Rogers, Xiangyi Li, Xu Lian, Zhihua Liu, Anping Chen, Josep Peñuelas

Summarized by: Michael Hallinan

What data were used? No new data was generated for this study, instead existing data from different sources was used and combined. The majority of the data used in this study comes from FLUXCOM, an initiative that uses satellite remote sensing, meteorological data, and site level observations at a global scale. In addition, data was also sourced from the World Climate Research Program, including from a variety of contributors such as the Canadian Center for Climate Modeling and Analysis and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Information on temperature, precipitation, surface downwelling shortwave radiation, maximum near-surface air temperature, and total influx of carbon into an ecosystem were used.

Methods: An earth climate model was created using the relationship between surface air temperature, summer carbon influx, precipitation, and surface downwelling radiation for the Northern Hemisphere. This model featured a moving 20-year window from 2001-2020 all the way to 2081-2100. Then using this model, analysis on carbon influx and surface air temperature was performed to generate a predictive model for temperature. From here, bias corrections were applied using observed data from 2001 to 2013 to help correct the model. Finally, projected temperatures were then compared to the historically observed optimal temperature for vegetation productivity. 

Results: Through this study it was discovered that there is a positive correlation between carbon fixation during summer and temperatures, although the correlation becomes negative at lower latitudes, specifically less than 45 degrees North, which could be a result of water deficits. Furthermore, it was also seen that about 48% of Northern vegetative land will see a significant decrease in the quantity of carbon fixed as a result of warming by 2060. Most regions will also experience a reduction in vegetative productivity as early as 2030-2070. This development will likely not reach the northern regions prior to the end of the modeled time frame (2100). However, in the worst case scenario most latitudes south of 50 degrees north such as much of the temperate United States, Asia, and the equatorial regions of Africa and South America were affected. It is important to note that study does not account for any of the southern hemisphere. 

A model of the earth, showing when temperature increase will begin to have a net negative effect on vegetative growth. Much of the northern hemisphere below 50 degrees north experiences this in 2030 or earlier. Slightly north of those regions the estimate is closer to 2070, with regions near the Artic and Tibetan Plateau not experiencing this till the end of the modeled time frame of 2100.
Map identifying the worst case scenarios climate model, showing timing of when temperature increase will begin to have a net negative effect on vegetative growth.

Why is the study important?: Climate change includes an increase in temperatures, which has caused an increase in vegetation productivity in the extratropical Northern Hemisphere since 1980. However, as climate change has begun to speed up, the positive benefits are estimated to change into a net negative effect on growth as temperature increases further. This study delves further into this idea and creates estimates based on different regions of when that will occur. This in turn can allow for preparedness, such as advancement of remediation plans to help us offset the negative effects of extreme temperatures on plant growth. 

The Big Picture: Vegetation is essential for agriculture, ecosystem balance, and general quality of life, so understanding the potential threat this aspect of climate change holds is essential for long-term sustainability and survival. Climate change has had a positive influence on plant growth in the extratropical Northern Hemisphere as early as 1980. However, this study has shown a shift in this to being a net negative influence as early as 2030 especially in regions below 50 degrees North. Regions closer to the Arctic and Tibetan Plateau are much less (or much slower) affected though, with a worst-case scenario not showing a tipping point prior to 2100 when net negative effects occur. Using these estimates, we can plan for this decrease in vegetative productivity as well as try to adapt and mitigate to minimize future negative impacts induced by the temperature increase.

Citation: Zhang, Y., Piao, S., Sun, Y. et al. Future reversal of warming-enhanced vegetation productivity in the Northern Hemisphere. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 581–586 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01374-w

Identifying new-found Complexities in Chimpanzee Communication

Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties

Cédric Girard-Buttoz, Emiliano Zaccarella, Tatiana Bortolato, Angela D. Friederici, Roman M. Wittig, and Catherine Crockford

Summarized by Michael Hallinan

What data were used? This study uses 4826 recordings of 46 wild adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) from Tai National Park located in Ivory Coast, West Africa. The chimpanzees recorded were fully accustomed to human observers, and comprised three different chimpanzee communities. These observations were performed by focusing on each of the 46 chimpanzees individually and continuously recording throughout January and February of 2019 as well as December 2019 to March 2020.

Methods: These recordings were classified by trained listeners into Grunts, Hoos, Barks, and Screams with variation on the sounds being panted or unpanted, meaning that they were either emitted singly (unpanted) or released as a string of sounds with audible breaths in between (panted). In addition to type classification, other information such as frequency level, noisiness, and occurrence were also collected. Each call was examined to identify which sounds occurred in association with other sounds or by itself. The data was analyzed to answer the following research questions: First, is there flexibility, can most sounds or calls used be combined with most others? (Can A, B, C, be AB, CB, BA, etc.?) Second, is there a specific ordering? (Does AB mean the same as BA?) Lastly, can short sequences be combined  into longer sequences? (Can AB occur as ABC, or can AB and CD occur as ABCD?)

Results: Initially, there were slightly over 400 sound units identified suggesting nearly 400 “words” within their vocabulary. It was found that chimpanzees could flexibly combine as well as recombine single units across those identified, with 11 out of the 12 single unit sounds also appearing in sequences together with 4-9 other sounds. Many of the single-unit calls could be emitted within two-unit calls and two-unit calls could be added to another unit to produce three-unit calls. Additionally, 52.6% of all two unit calls were produced reversed and forwards at least once (BA and AB) with 57% of the tested two unit calls showing bias for appearing in a certain order. Although some of the single units could appear at the beginning or end of calls, there generally was bias suggesting a more complex grammatical structure and ordering pattern. That being said though, to identify a more complex grammar structure and how that could be used to understand meaning, more research needs to be done. 

A bar chart with length of speech units displayed across the x-axis and number of recordings the units appeared in on the y-axis in a log scale. The frequency of sounds recorded decreases as the unit length of the sounds increases, with the exception of single-unit panted sounds, which appears slightly less frequent then two-unit sounds. Once the units reach a length of 7 units, only females are recorded making sounds of these lengths up till 10 units. Generally, 1 through 4 unit length sounds appear very frequently with over 40 appearing, until it drops off to 32 at 5 units, 20 at 6 units, 10 at 7 units, and finally 4 at 8 units, and 2 for 9 and 10 units.
This bar graph shows the number of different utterances, with the number of units in each utterance displayed across the x axis, while the y axis shows the number of recordings on a log scale. The number of individuals using the unit at each length appears on top of each individual bar. The dark blue bars represent male and female generated sounds and the light blue bars represent only female-generated sounds. Last, the red box indicates the data used for two-unit analysis and the yellow box for three-unit analysis.

Why is this study important? Language is one of the biggest challenges in evolutionary science. Although different species such as certain types of birds, non-human primates and bats have been identified to have specific sound sets used to communicate, there is a huge limitation to our understanding of its development since what we know as language can not be fossilized. Comparative studies like this are therefore our main resource for understanding language and how it has evolved throughout time. This study reveals that primate language is more complex than we previously thought it was, showing more complex structures, and therefore has the potential to convey more meaning and more intricate speech. 

The Big Picture: Chimpanzees have been identified to produce and order sounds using a more complex grammatical structure than previously thought. This was observed through multiple sound units being combined together in patterns beyond random chance, in multiple fashions with bias towards certain structures. Although we don’t understand the content of their sounds, this reveals a more complex nature to their communication and with more research we might be able to potentially decipher their meaning. 

Citation: Girard-Buttoz, C., Zaccarella, E., Bortolato, T. et al. Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties. Commun Biol 5, 410 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-03350-8

Michael Hallinan, Undergraduate Student

Tell us a bit about yourself. 
My name is Michael Hallinan, and I am currently an undergraduate student at Colorado School of Mines studying for a B.S. in Quantitative Bioscience and Engineering. Although I love science, I am also super passionate about painting, music, and esports! I have a huge fixation on international music and love to analyze the relationships between globalization and culture the same way I enjoy analyzing ecological relationships.

Person wearing a grey cap and yellow jacket in the foreground. In the background, there are tan rocks and mountains in the distance.
Hiking through the arches of Arches National Park, within Moab, Utah.

What kind of scientist are you, what do you do, and how does it benefit society?
My current focus in science is predominantly in biology, with an emphasis on computational methods to model and analyze biological data. While I’m still learning and progressing through my bachelor’s, my goal is to enter research regarding biotechnology and sustainability, with an emphasis on communication and making science more accessible to policy-makers and the general public. Information is one of the most powerful and freeing tools we can have as people, and my work will encourage solutions to our rapidly expanding sustainability issues as well encourage more people to engage with science. My most recent work was centered around investigating the power insecurity in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricanes across the last decade, including educating and communicating the geopolitical landscape and data through various presentations.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the longest. I’ve had so many passions and was originally lined up to pursue a degree in the arts after winning an art award through the United States Congress. However, throughout secondary school, I was introduced to the concept of genetic modification and was completely fascinated by the potential of humans to understand and improve the world around us through genome editing. Soon after, I heard about the brand new Quantitative Bioscience program at Colorado School of Mines and just knew it was the perfect fit as I entered college.

As for my favorite part of being a scientist, it’s simply how what you learn begins to explain so much of the world around you. Whether it’s something as simple as the basics of plant growth or as complicated as the inner workings of recombinant DNA, all the information you learn helps you better engage with, understand, and appreciate the world around you.

A self-portrait, with a person with dark hair, red lips, and gold eyes against a background of varying shades of grey.
“Fragmentum” – The award-winning piece mentioned, a self-portrait investigating identity and how we present ourselves to the world.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming scientists?
My best advice is to not be afraid of not knowing. So often I used to be scared of what people would think about me asking certain questions or I wouldn’t want to do things because I wasn’t fully comfortable. I wouldn’t ask questions in lecture or I wouldn’t take a guess if I was not totally certain. Asking questions and engaging with what is uncomfortable is some of the best ways to learn and develop your capabilities both as a scientist, but also as a person. In my own experience, I have learned so much more from situations where I was uncomfortable. Taking the time to talk to those who know more than you lets you learn, grow, and even build up your network. So, take that opportunity you’re unsure of, ask your “dumb” question, be unafraid!