(CN) – Efforts by scientists to map out global diversity are not new, particularly as ecosystems come under increasing pressure from a combination of human development and a changing climate.
But up to now, most of those efforts have focused on terrestrial biodiversity, neglecting the teeming ecosystems that thrive beneath the surface of water.
“We are terrestrial creatures, and so we have a natural bias favoring the land,” said Dr. Clinton Jenkins, a professor at the Institute for Ecological Research in São Paulo, Brazil. “However, much of the world’s diversity is aquatic, living in the 70% of the earth’s surface that is either ocean, lakes and rivers.”
Jenkins teamed up with the research team at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium to try and correct the terrestrial bias in biodiversity mapping and instead provide a detailed and comprehensive account of the species distribution throughout planet Earth.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium led the research published Wednesday in PLOS ONE and claims the study offers the most complete picture of life on Earth, allowing scientists to determine the most important factors that allow life to thrive in one place versus another.
“Previous biodiversity maps show either land or sea with the other area grayed out,” said Kyle Van Houten, the aquarium’s chief scientist and lead author of the study. “We brought these two realms, and these two scientific domains, together to show that all animals are essential parts of an intricate whole.”
The purpose of the study, according to Van Houten, isn’t solely to provide researchers with a contemporary picture of biodiversity, but also to provide an analytical tool to assist scientist and wildlife managers with adapting to a changing climate.
“Maps typically show us where we are, but this study also shows us where we are going,” the lead author said.
The maps are designed to show where aquatic species might move as waters warm or acidify as the result of climate change.
The study includes government scientists from the United States, Canada, Brazil collected data on more than 67,000 species distributed throughout the globe.
After the data collection, the team used computer modeling with advanced machine learning capabilities to help highlight patterns in the relation between species and their environment.
The approach allowed the scientists to identify and rank about 25 different environmental factors that abet the flourishing of various flora and fauna.
Some preliminary insights show that coral reefs and montane forests facilitate greater biodiversity than the accumulation of environmental factors alone might indicate. But a list of such factors can also help predict whether life will thrive or struggle in a given ecosystem as the climate changes.
“This helps us document where climate change mechanisms may influence animals most and identify environmental conditions that have more or less biodiversity than we might expect,” said co-author Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We need to understand the drivers of biodiversity to preserve species within ecosystems that are moving due to changing environmental conditions, and to allow us to take a more dynamic approach towards protecting them.”
Problems with global diversity are not a distant problem either, as the most recent report from the United Nations painted a bleak picture: More than 1 million species face extinction, with half of that number on the brink and requiring immediate and drastic measures to stave off the worst outcomes.
Many entire classes of creatures, including birds, mammals, fish, insects, reptiles and amphibians have experienced double digit population declines in recent years.
Human activities like mining, logging and fishing all play a role in such steep declines, according to the report, making the mapping tool that much more vital for resource managers.
“Our research has pinpointed the environmental factors that allow such a diversity of life to flourish on Earth and enables a flexible, data-driven approach to protect global biodiversity as once-stable conditions become less predictable,” Van Houten said.