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Species' Family Trees Could Aid In Conservation, Study Shows

Close up of honey bee on purple aster flower with yellow center.
John Severns/Wikipedia Commons

The biblical tale says Noah rescued species from the flood by building an ark and loading it with a male and female of each species. In modern conservation, a literal ark won’t work. But USU scientists have determined a method that could help protect threatened species.

Species’ family trees could hold the key to better conservation according to Will Pearse—a scientist at Utah State University. Pearse and his team have published their findings in "Nature Communications," a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Pearse said, "If you preserve species on the basis of their evolutionary history, their phylogenetic diversity, you will, on average, preserve more functional diversity than you would expect by chance."

Pearse said functional diversity is the variation of roles—or functions—a species plays in an ecosystem.

"Let’s imagine that we had a load of predators lined up in front of us," Pearse said. "You’d probably want a really big predator, because that eats really big food. And you’d want a medium sized predator and a smaller sized predator. They have very different regulatory aspects to things because they’re eating different things. And that has a really radically different impact on an ecosystem."

Conservation biologists can use evolutionary histories of species to help determine the functional diversity of a species—and this, said Pearse, is what is important for deciding how to best conserve species when many are at risk or endangered.

"Let’s imagine that we got rid of all of the bees tomorrow," Pearse said. "Bees pollinate so much of the crops that we rely on for food, that crop production would become really difficult. And so preserving functional diversity in pollinators is really important, if we want to have a robust and resilient crop and agricultural system going forward."

Predators, birds, and all species play a role in human ecosystems, according to Pearse.

"All of these animals provide really important ecosystem services that we depend on," Pearse said. "And if we damage that ecosystem, if we remove its capacity to regenerate, if we remove its capacity to resist changes in the environment, and of course, if we just reduce the amount of things it does, we reduce the things it can do for us."

See the study here: Nature Communications