The frozen north of Canada and Alaska are among the regions that could become the next priority for conservation efforts, according to a new study that predicts which animals will become endangered if their habitats are damaged.
Conservation biology plays a tough game of catch-up. Species are given a high priority if their populations are dwindling fast, but often by then it's already too late to save them. What's needed, argues Marcel Cardillo, a conservation biologist at Imperial College London, is a prediction of where species might become endangered in the future so that habitats can be preserved proactively.
To forecast conservation's future, a team led by Cardillo calculated the extinction risk of 4000 mammal species. Mining a database of the species' attributes, the researchers focused on characteristics most likely to predispose a group of animals to extinction, such as body mass, habitat range, and reproduction rate. Then they compared this predicted risk with a species's current extinction risk, as determined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (whose data provide the basis of the so-called Red List of endangered species).
Surprisingly, the 10% of mammals with the highest predicted extinction risk relative to their current status do not reside in biodiversity hotspots such as the rainforests of Brazil. Rather, these potential future Red List mammals are found in Alaska, northern Canada, and a series of island chains in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The only reason species in these regions--such as the musk ox, caribou, flying fox, and brown lemur--still exist is that their habitats remain intact, according to the study, posted online 6 March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"What's impressive is that this study analyzed much more data than has ever been tried before," says Olaf Bininda-Emonds, a conservation biologist at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. But other scientists have reservations. Although there are species with a high predicted risk of extinction in Arctic habitats, there are relatively few species to be lost in total there, says Thomas Brooks, director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science in Washington, D.C. "It's the absolute numbers of extinctions that we should be worrying about," he says.