21 Apr 2016

Data boring? Or data vital?

Think of the Critically Endangered Tristan Albatross if you are about to yawn, and read on. Photo: Marc Guyt
By Shaun Hurrell

Do datasets make you yawn? Well think again because without good data we cannot conserve our environment effectively. Scientists call for better data as a new study reveals just 5% of datasets meet a ‘gold standard’ needed for effective biodiversity conservation.

Not convinced? Then think of the Critically Endangered Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena and the Endangered Atlantic Petrel Pterodroma incertawhich breed almost exclusively on Gough Island in the Southern Atlantic. Here helpless chicks are gnawed to death by invasive House Mice. Invasive alien species like this are a major threat to native species all around the world, particularly on islands, but in order to prioritise protection efficiently for endangered species elsewhere, we need more data.

Relevant information needs to be freely available, reliable and up-to-date in order to understand fully the threats to biodiversity, where they occur and how quickly they are changing. The study published in Science reveals those data are largely missing.

Over the past two years a consortium of 18 organisations including BirdLife International compiled available global data on threats to nature. Only 5% of the datasets satisfied their criteria. 

Take the example of invasive species on islands: currently there is no comprehensive global dataset that identifies which invasive species threaten which native species on which islands. But the authors of the study stress that filling these data gaps need not start from scratch. BirdLife International, Island Conservation, the IUCN-SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group and the University of California - Santa Cruz are collaborating to compile such data in the Threatened Island Biodiversity Database and to identify the most important islands worldwide for tackling this major threat to biodiversity. 

The database will provide the backbone for a list of islands where eradicating invasives would deliver the greatest ‘biodiversity bang per buck’. This is needed in order to prioritise where we should spend scarce conservation resources to maximise benefits for threatened native species. 

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And it’s not just invasives. The authors say we are lacking key information on other important threats to biodiversity such as logging, bush meat harvesting, and illegal wildlife trade. 

“We live in the age of Big Data,” says Lucas Joppa who leads environmental research at Microsoft and was lead author. “But are effectively flying blind when it comes to understanding what is threatening biodiversity around the world.”

Sometimes missing data on threats can have serious conservation implications. For example, when a global dataset of high-resolution satellite maps showing deforestation became open-access, scientists from BirdLife and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) found the extinction risk of hundreds of species had been underestimated.

“Now these data are freely available,” says Dr Stuart Butchart, Head of Science at BirdLife International, “we can assess the implications for each species’ extinction risk, more accurately define which species are threatened, and more effectively target conservation action.” 

For example Long-tailed Parakeet Psittacula longicauda, which was discovered to have lost 17% of the forest in its distribution (mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia) during 2000-2012, now qualifies for uplisting from Near Threatened to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The new paper by Joppa and colleagues now urges governments and private companies to address the accessibility of data, for the good of biodiversity worldwide. A great example is BirdLife’s Global Seabird Tracking Database, one of the biggest marine conservation data collaborations in the world – and which now holds more than 5 million data points on the locations of albatrosses and petrels in the world’s oceans. 

These data have not only furthered our understanding of the movements of species like Tristan Albatross, but they are increasingly being used to identify the most important places for seabirds at sea and ensure their protection. 

Joppa, L, O'Connor, B, Visconti, P, et al. (2016) Filling data gaps for threats to biodiversity was published in Science on 22 April 2016. 

The paper was produced by a consortium of 18 organisations, including UNEP-WCMC, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Luc Hoffmann Institute, a research hub at WWF International, and BirdLife International.