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Israeli and UK scientists working together in fight against species extinction

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The teams’ research involved collecting data on 84% of land vertebrate species, roughly 30,000 species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, and examining their evolutionary relationships and geographic distribution

By LILIA GAUFBERG

A group of scientific researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is determined to make extinction go extinct. 

Dr Uri Roll and Dr Gopal Murali are both researchers affiliated with the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research on the Sde Boker campus of BGU. They are working in conjunction with Dr Rikki Gumbs of Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London and Dr Shai Meiri of Tel Aviv University to target regions and species in the direst need of conservation. 

The team’s study, which was published in Science Advances, outlines how they honed in on species that possess two notable features: namely, they are restricted to a small zone, which ups their likelihood of extinction, and they are evolutionarily distinctive, meaning that they are not closely related to other species. The potential disappearance of these types of distinctive species is concerning because they likely play an extremely unique and notably important role in their given ecosystems. 

The team set out to identify these regions of high ‘phylogenetic endemism’, or regions that contain these types of species restricted to one region and without many close relatives. 

Their research involved collecting data on 84% of land vertebrate species, roughly 30,000 species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, and examining their evolutionary relationships and geographic distribution. They subsequently determined the global ‘hotspots’ of these species and found the conditions needed for these species to thrive. 

As part of their research, the team also determined what currently protects and threatens these species. They discovered that high phylogenetic endemism can typically be found in regions, which are mountainous and tropical, such as in the Southern Hemisphere’s mountain ranges and islands. 

These regions compose 22% of the total landmass when accounting for the ‘hotspots’ of amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds. The regions important for all four groups were identified as the Caribbean Islands, Central America, the Andes, eastern Madagascar, Sri Lanka, the southern Western Ghats in India, and New Guinea. Some of these regions had not been previously identified as being in need of conservation efforts. 

Dr Murali from the team noted that “overall, our findings support the notion that tropical mountains have an important role in generating and maintaining biodiversity.” 

The researchers also illustrated that their study “highlights that many uniquely rare species, which may perform distinct roles in their ecosystems, will likely be among the first to be lost due to global change” and emphasized that “to-date, most conservation strategies still focus on species-rich regions or flagship species, which may miss out on regions with uniquely rare species.”
“Our study emphasizes the need for a strategic conservation policy and management to safeguard the persistence of thousands of small-ranged species that represent millions of years of unique evolutionary history,” they explained.

The team additionally made a startling discovery that these ‘hotspots’ contained higher concentrations of roads, buildings, the modification of natural land for agriculture and urbanization, high population density, and, most alarmingly, faster climate change than other regions. This helped them to determine how human activities and climate change pose a significant threat to these ‘hotspots.’ 

According to the researchers, the majority of these ‘hotspots’ lack sufficient protection, with approximately 70% of these ‘hotspot’ regions having less than 10% overlap with protected zones. Among these regions in dire need of conservation efforts are the southern Andes, Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, and the Solomon Islands.

The takeaway? Several distinct, rare species, many of which likely serve irreplaceable roles in their given ecosystems, are especially threatened by the changing climate. Thanks to Roll and Murali’s research, it may be possible to keep these species and regions around for longer than currently projected.

**Featured Image: Some of the species facing possible extinction that the team are working. The Red ruffed lemur (photo credit: Charles J Sharp), Madagascar fish eagle (photo credit: Anjajavy le Lodge), Hula painted frog (photo credit: Gopal Murali – own image), and Chinese Crocodile Lizard (photo credit: Holger Krisp) – Via Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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