Ask biologists how many species live in a pond, a grassland, a mountain range or on the entire planet, and the answers get increasingly vague. Hence the wide range of estimates for the planet's biodiversity, predicted to be between 2 million and 50 million species.
A new way of estimating species richness reported this month in the journal Ecology Letters by University of California, Berkeley, ecologist John Harte and colleagues, will make such estimates more precise for habitats of all sizes and types, from deserts to tropical rainforests.
"We know how to census the number of species in a square-meter plot or within an acre, but a major problem in conservation biology and ecology is estimating the diversity of biota at very large spatial scales, such as in the Amazon," said Harte, UC Berkeley professor of energy and resources. "This theory provides a much more accurate means of doing that."
The method, derived from the field of information theory, will affect not only conservation efforts to save species facing habitat loss, but also estimates of the impact of global warming, Harte said.
"Quantifying the magnitude of the extinction crisis involves estimating the richness of life in different habitats," he said. "The new theory is probably going to reduce the direness of the predictions of species loss under either habitat loss or climate change at the largest spatial scales, but it will increase (the direness) of estimates of loss at smaller scales."
Losing half of a small biome, for example, will have a worse impact than people think, while losing half of a large area would turn out better, he said.
Harte, who spends his summers in the Rocky Mountains studying the impact of climate change on plants, has for decades mulled over the problem of extrapolating from small study plots to large areas. Census takers have mastered this art, profiling the U.S. population by sampling small representative subset
|Contact: Robert Sanders|
University of California - Berkeley