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Scientists enlist big data to guide conservation efforts

ity, Misher said.

"If we look only at the diversity of species the twigs on the tree of life we aren't taking advantage of all this branch information," he said. "It's like looking at the frosting instead of the whole cake."

The new method starts with the branches connecting the species in a specific area, so-called phylogenetic diversity, but then gives more weight to those branches that are endemic that is, restricted in range. This "relative phylogenetic endemism" is a better measure of diversity and rarity, Mishler argues, and should be what scientists and policymakers look at when considering whether to conserve an area.

"This provides a powerful conservation argument as well as a method of identifying areas containing endangered lineages we need to protect," he said. "Since we can't save everything, we have to prioritize our conservation efforts, and this helps."

Such an analysis can pinpoint and differentiate between areas with clusters of new, emerging species (neoendemics) and areas with clusters of unique, but disappearing, species (paleoendemics) that often occupy refuges such as high mountains.

"Our new method lets us spot not only concentrations of endemic lineages, but distinguish the long-lived paleoendemics and the short-lived neoendemics," Mishler said.

The new paper takes as an example a small subset of Australia's flora, its acacia trees. Mishler and coauthors show how one can lay a grid across the entire continent and count not only the species (twigs) in each area, but also the phylogenetic distance between species (the branch length between twigs), measuring down the branch to the nearest junction, then back up to the other twig. Diversity weighted by a branch's endemism yields a unique map of areas of endemism.

The scientists' analysis identified three areas the rainforests of southwest Western Australia, the Gascoyne region and Tasmania where conservation efforts might preser

Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley

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