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Protecting One-Fifth of Earth's Land Could Save Two-Thirds of Plant Species

Protecting One-Fifth of Earth's Land Could Save Two-Thirds of Plant Species

Duke University

Protecting key regions that comprise just 17 percent of Earth’s land may help preserve more than two-thirds of its plant species, according to a new Duke University-led study by an international team of scientists.

The researchers from Duke, North Carolina State University and Microsoft Research used computer algorithms to identify the smallest set of regions worldwide that could contain the largest numbers of plant species. They published their findings yesterday in the journal Science

“Our analysis shows that two of the most ambitious goals set forth by the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity—to protect 60 percent of Earth’s plant species and 17 percent of its land surface—can be achieved, with one major caveat,” said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“To achieve these goals, we need to protect more land, on average, than we currently do, and much more in key places such as Madagascar, New Guinea and Ecuador,” Pimm said. “Our study identifies regions of importance. The logical—and very challenging—next step will be to make tactical local decisions within those regions to secure the most critical land for conservation.”

Plant species aren’t haphazardly distributed across the planet. Certain areas, including Central America, the Caribbean, the Northern Andes and regions in Africa and Asia have much higher concentrations of endemic species, that is, those which are found nowhere else. 

Madagascar Spiny Forests.

“Species endemic to small geographical ranges are at a much higher risk of being threatened or endangered than those with large ranges," said Lucas N. Joppa, a conservation scientist at Microsoft Research’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge, UK. "We combined regions to maximize the numbers of species in the minimal area. With that information, we can more accurately evaluate each region’s relative importance for conservation, and assess international priorities accordingly.”

To identify which of Earth’s regions contain the highest concentrations of endemic species, relative to their geographic size, the researchers analyzed data on more than 100,000 different species of flowering plants, compiled by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. 

Joppa and Piero Visconti, also of Microsoft Research’s Computational Science Laboratory, created and ran the complex algorithms needed to analyze the large spatial database. 

Based on their computations, Clinton N. Jenkins, a research scholar at North Carolina State University, created a color-coded global map identifying high-priority regions for plant conservation, ranked by endemic species density.

“We also mapped where the greatest numbers of small-ranged birds, mammals and amphibians occur, and found that they are broadly in the same places we show to be priorities for plants,” Jenkins said. “So preserving these lands for plants will benefit many animals, too.”

Without having access to the Royal Botanic Gardens’ plant database, which is one of the largest biodiversity databases in the world, the team would not have been able to conduct their analysis, said Joppa, who received his Ph.D. in ecology from Duke in 2009.   

Pimm and Jenkins lead the conservation nonprofit Saving Species, which works with local communities and international agencies to purchase and protect threatened lands that are critical for biodiversity.

“The fraction of land being protected in high-priority regions increases each year as new national parks are established and greater autonomy is given back to indigenous peoples to allow them to manage their traditional lands,” Pimm said. “We’re getting tantalizingly close to achieving the Convention of Biological Diversity’s global goals. But the last few steps remaining are huge ones.”

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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