Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting of the Royal Society’s Global Environmental Research Committee (GERC), the focus of which was Biodiversity (see GERC paper on priorities).
Biodiversity has become a key global policy concern within the context of rapid global change. Changing climates, land use and human population size can all influence biodiversity, often with negative impacts. Six experts presented their research in this area, covering a wide range of topics including patterns of biodiversity, networks, microbial diversity and biodiversity and policy.
A number of key challenges that biodiversity research is currently facing emerged throughout the talks and further discussions, a summary of which is discussed below:
1. What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity means different things to different people. Whilst the dictionary definition is ‘The variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable’, it is generally used by scientists to mean the number of species present in any one area or habitat. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) describes it as the sum of ecosystem, species and genetic material, as well as the variability between them.
Both the committee and speakers noted that there were high levels of confusion among policymakers about what biodiversity actually is, and this makes protecting biodiversity challenging. Levels of biodiversity are generally low in areas of agricultural land use as monoculture favours a reduction in diversity and an increase in the production of plants or animals possessing desirable traits. Biodiversity is generally thought to be important because higher levels increase the resilience of ecosystems and food webs. There are, however, many other benefits that have been linked to biodiversity, including ecosystem services, cultural values and supplying valuable resources for medicine and agriculture.
2. Monitoring biodiversity
Once we have agreed on what biodiversity is, how do we go about monitoring it? As you can imagine, monitoring all ecosystem, species and genetic diversity is not easy. The UK has historically been very good at monitoring its biodiversity, with many naturalists keeping detailed records of their natural history observations – famous figures such as Darwin, Ronald Fisher and Beatrix Potter all kept detailed observations of species occurrences. Despite this, there are gaps in both current and historical monitoring, with freshwater and microbial diversity often being overlooked. It is important that these gaps in monitoring are filled to get a full picture of biodiversity. Thankfully, due to advances in technology, citizen scientists are becoming increasingly prolific, and the monitoring of micro and macro fauna using genetic sequencing is becoming cheaper and more efficient.
Biodiversity monitoring is increasingly moving towards big data. With new technologies such as remote sensing, citizen science apps and genetic identification of species, alongside increases in data collection, datasets are getting bigger, requiring increasing computational power to both store and analyse the data. Adequate credit for the people who put the time and money into collecting the data is key, and easily overlooked in the move towards large, open access datasets. This may be overcome in the future as data collection technologies such as citizen science and genetic analysis, which are require less effort by the scientists involved, might replace traditional observational methods of data collection carried out by scientists.
There have been questions around the quality of citizen science data, and it is important that quality is both assessed and made explicit in any dataset. On top of this, citizen science data can be biased spatially, with much of it coming from developed countries, particularly the USA and Europe. Recently, concerns have been raised about the use of biodiversity data to target vulnerable species.
4. What measure to use?
There are questions about which elements of biodiversity researchers need to be monitoring and analysing. Historical data generally consists of species counts and observations – this involves counting the number of species present, as well as sometimes the abundance of those species. The number of species is not the only aspect of biodiversity which changes under human pressures such as climate change and habitat loss.
Many areas are not experiencing a decline in the number of species, but there are changes in which species are present in that area – species assemblages. Often the species present are becoming more similar across habitat and latitudinal gradients, with the species present in one area becoming more similar to the species present in another as new species move in and others go locally extinct.
Alongside this, often little is known about the resilience of specific biological networks, meaning impacts on one species can have unintended consequences elsewhere in the food-web or ecosystem. Rather than just looking at the number of species, it is important that researchers also monitor which species are present, and system resilience.
When attempting to identify changes in biodiversity, scale is key – both in time and in space. This is a challenge for both research and regulation. Small scale, controlled experiments on the impact of higher biodiversity on ecosystem function are relatively straightforward. Doing larger scale landscape or even ecosystem scale experiments is incredibly challenging, however, and therefore smaller scale experiments have to be combined with observations in natural environments. It is important that the benefits of, and impacts on, biodiversity are linked across scales. Policy in the UK will soon revolve around a 25 year plan for nature, and here, as in many countries, there is a disconnect between short term planning and funding timescales, and longer term research timescales in the field.
There has been a big expansion in research areas such as ecosystem services and natural capital, which attempt to quantify the benefits of natural resources. The economic benefits of biodiversity are very difficult to measure, however, and those values are often transient. Unless someone monetises the benefits of biodiversity they can be relatively worthless, and are generally very difficult to build into economic models. Increasingly, an interdisciplinary approach is being used to tackle the issue of valuing biodiversity, by exploring the non-economic values of biodiversity such as cultural value and importance for health and wellbeing. Giving biodiversity a value of some kind is key in communicating its importance to policymakers, and in informing policy and regulations designed to protect it.
Whilst all of these areas present challenges for biodiversity research, they also present a lot of opportunities. Technological advances are opening up a lot of new areas in the field, allowing for more data to be collected on a larger number of organisms, and potentially uncovering new benefits of biodiversity to humanity. The UK is at the forefront of several areas in biodiversity monitoring, modelling and prediction, and these new research horizons can help us understand how biodiversity, and the benefits that it brings, are likely to change under an increasingly rapid pace of global change. A final report of the discussion will be made available.