Assessing the Biological Crisis

By Clayton Meredith, Species in Peril, vol. 1 no. 2June 5, 2020

This year we were proud to work with Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to develop training programs and coursework that incorporates the Red List assessment process. Eight students attended our first Red List course and authored assessments of southwestern plant species, which will be published on the IUCN Red List later this year. We chose to offer the course with SIPI, in part, to advance the IUCN’s goal of incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into conservation assessments. … we recognize the destructive capacity of colonial conservation and hope to be a force for change to forge broader coalitions incorporating and foregrounding Native voices at all stages of our conservation programs.

Recent news articles (some real, and some fake) documenting the return of something superficially resembling functional ecosystems in and around urban areas have given many of us a glimmer of hope as we self-isolate and/or maintain social distancing required by government mandate due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stories and photos of mountain vistas revealed after several decades of concealment by air pollution, dolphins swimming in the shipping channels of the Bosporus, and all manner of large mammals roaming formerly bustling streets have captured our imagination. These images provide us with some level of connection to the natural world from which many of us have been cut off. So popular are these stories and images that they have been augmented by entirely fictitious accounts of dolphins in Venice’s canals, and elephants drunkenly parading through farm fields. More quantitative measures highlight declining oil extraction rates, global declines in carbon emissions, and improvements to air quality by several measures.

Amidst this outpouring of heartening news, more concerning developments have also arisen during the past few months. The global coronavirus pandemic has been used as a cover for removal of environmental regulations in Canada, Brazil, and the United States. This deregulation ushers in more rapid development of fossil fuel extraction projects and paves the way for more deforestation. For every positive report suggesting pangolins may benefit from reduced wildlife trade associated with the pandemic, contradictory reports suggest poaching has increased in some markets and many more species have been put at risk through heightening levels of food insecurity.

The uncertainty surrounding the impact of current circumstances regarding the status of various species is not unique. The rapid pace of change in the threats to imperiled species coupled with changes to how species are categorized, and our understanding of the biology and ecology of individual species and ecosystems—all contribute to significant gaps in knowledge which must be addressed to reverse the current trend toward mass species extinction. Many of these gaps have been widely acknowledged and are known to be fundamental barriers to scientific research in a variety of subjects.

At the most basic level, the Linnean Shortfall describes the small number of species which have been described to date by science—relative to the number of species thought to exist. Estimates vary dramatically, but the 1.6 million described so far very likely comprises less than 20% of all species on Earth. Some estimates even suggest that less than 1% of all living species have been described by science. Also consider the Wallacean Shortfall that addresses the paucity of information on biogeography and our astounding lack of knowledge, at all scales of measurement, about where species occur. Other shortfalls include the Prestonian (lack of population information), Raunkiaeran (lack of information concerning ecologically relevant traits), Hutchinsonian (lack of information on abiotic ecological tolerances), and Eltonian (lack of information on interactions between species). Each of these shortfalls presents an enormous challenge to the field of species conservation, which can only be overcome through investment in conservation initiatives, broader focus on data collection and interpretation, and a recognition of the need for science-driven public policy.

Further complicating these efforts is our lack of understanding about the nature of interactions between threats impacting a species and intrinsic aspects of their biology. Habitat loss, population reductions, or the introduction of competing species can cause complex feedbacks and responses which may reduce the likelihood of recovery beyond what is expected due to reductions in genetic diversity, or fragmentation of remaining habitat.

Examination of such “extinction vortices” often requires fine-grained data on the biology of a species, its ecological relationships, and the genetic structure of existing populations. Such data is time-consuming and expensive to collect, and studies are all too often initiated after a dire state has been reached.

The task seems daunting in the face of scant resources, limited data, and an ever-increasing number of threats. However, recent conservation initiatives and newly developed partnerships with zoos, aquariums, donors, and corporate sponsors provide a hopeful prospect for change. First, methods exist for determining which species are at risk of extinction, which are not, and which require more information to determine their risk. Though several measures are employed, the most widely adopted is the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List.

One of the IUCN’s priorities is developing a baseline assessment of conservation status for a broad array of taxa (groups of species). Assessments of all birds, amphibians, and reef building corals have allowed us to quantify the risk to groups of species. Using an even larger sample of 160,000 species, inferences can be drawn to better understand the risk of extinction within different taxa, regions, and ecosystems. The project is called the Barometer of Life and has been aided by a number of partners. In addition to investments made by corporate sponsors and consultations with academic contributors, the IUCN Species Survival Commission has engaged zoos and aquariums worldwide in an effort to significantly increase the number of species assessments on the Red List.

Tim Lyons, NMBPS’s Species Survival Officer for Aquatic Habitats collects seeds from the rare Mesa Verde Cactus (Sclerocactus mesae-veradae) for propagation experiments. Populations of the species, which occurs only in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, have been in decline as a result of drought. Though the species is currently listed as Least Concern, data was collected to conduct a reassessment of the species as part of this project.

Two years ago, the New Mexico BioPark Society (NMBPS) made a commitment to expanding the Red List by hiring two full time staff members dedicated to assessing freshwater fish and medicinal plants. NMBPS, the non-profit support organization for the Albuquerque BioPark, is dedicated to development of BioPark facilities as well as support of educational and recreational programming at the BioPark’s facilities (the ABQ BioPark Zoo, Aquarium, Botanic Garden, and Tingley Beach), and enrichment programs that enhance animal wellbeing. The NMBPS also supports conservation initiatives undertaken by the BioPark including research projects on site, and in the field. 

The NMBPS’s support for the Red List is among the largest contributions within a growing group of aquariums and zoos worldwide which have supported the Red List. The NMBPS has since hired a third assessor to contribute assessments for insect pollinators. Assessment of the extinction risk to species (both locally and globally), the capacity for remediation, and the planning stages necessary to implement change—forms the core of our program. We envision the process of enacting change as a cycle beginning with assessment, continuing with comprehensive planning which involves all relevant stakeholders, acting to restore ecosystems and prevent extinction, and returning to assess the outcomes.

To date, our office has written over 900 species assessments. Last month we published a comprehensive report documenting the status of all 536 species of freshwater fish in Mexico. This project involved researching and writing assessments and coordinating conferences which hosted relevant experts at the BioPark to review and ensure the accuracy of our findings. This past February, we hosted another workshop to assess every freshwater fish species in Central America; the assessments will be published later this year. 

This month will see the publication of assessments of every North American species of Trillium. These long-lived and beautiful plants are culturally significant across much of eastern North America and face rapid declines as a result of collection for the preparation of herbal medicines, overabundance of white-tailed deer, and disturbance caused by feral pigs. Trillium was identified as a priority following a broader push to assess economically important medicinal plant species in North America, which has included some of the most widely used and widely harvested herbs in the United States and Canada. We are also working on projects to build collaborative partnerships to assess all of North America’s species of fireflies and to inform efforts to more sustainably manage firefly ecotourism in ways that both preserve habitats and create economic opportunities for communities in their vicinity.

The ABQ BioPark Aquatic Conservation Facility was initially constructed to assist with recovery of the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow, which suffered a severe population decline and was listed as Endangered under the IUCN Red List. In addition to the efforts to bolster silvery minnow populations, the facility is also now home to several species of rare Mexican freshwater fish, including the Tequila Splitfin, Butterfly Splitfin, Golden Skiffia and several others.

Embedding the research that we are doing within an environment that includes zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens—has the side benefit of allowing for rapid implementation of actions to study or propagate a species leveraging our ex situ conservation capacity. A notable example of this is our Mexican freshwater fish conservation program. During our assessment of freshwater fish in the region, several species which are Critically Endangered or Extinct in the Wild were identified and flagged for further work. 

The Butterfly Splitfin (Ameca splendens) and the Tequila Splitfin (Zoogoneticus tequila), listed as Critically Endangered and Endangered, respectively—both have very small ranges outside the city of Guadalajara, Mexico. Due to water quality declines and the impact of introduced competitors, both of these small, colorful species have faced precipitous population declines in the recent past. During the assessment process, these species were identified as good candidates for ex situ conservation programs and both species were a good fit for inclusion at the BioPark’s Aquatic Conservation Facility (ACF). Within months, the ACF was home to several species of splitfins (Goodeidae), which were sourced from orphaned collections held at academic institutions, and the aquarium fish trade. The project proved successful and the growth of these populations has been so rapid, additional buildings were constructed to house more fish. There are now more Tequila Splitfins housed at the BioPark than were thought to exist in the wild at the time it came to our attention. 

Another species identified during our research, the Golden Skiffia (Skiffia francesae) was listed as Extinct in the Wild and is now housed at the ACF. The BioPark is assisting with our partners on the ground in Guadalajara and hopes to be a key player in the reintroduction efforts for this species in the very near future. All of these conservation actions are the product of our investment in the assessment process and the mobilization of the BioPark’s resources to serve conservation goals that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.

We also hope that this program can serve our broader community and be enriched by participation of the public in conservation initiatives. This year we were proud to work with Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to develop training programs and coursework that incorporates the Red List assessment process. Eight students attended our first Red List course and authored assessments of southwestern plant species, which will be published on the IUCN Red List later this year. We chose to offer the course with SIPI, in part, to advance the IUCN’s goal of incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into conservation assessments. 

This information is often critical in determining how species are used, what harvest rates are sustainable, and how histories of colonization impact ecosystems today. Recognizing the sensitivity of this information, we believe that the best way for us to incorporate this data is through building long-term relationships with Native communities in our region and providing the support necessary for communities to assess the species on their lands, divulge information they are comfortable with disseminating, and engage in conservation programs which are appropriate within their communities. 

More importantly, however, we recognize the destructive capacity of colonial conservation and hope to be a force for change to forge broader coalitions incorporating and foregrounding Native voices at all stages of our conservation programs.

The myriad crises that dominate the news cycle are a constant reminder of the need for additional research and collection of data to better coordinate species conservation actions. Whether in response to wildfires in Australia, cyclone damage in the Sundarbans, locust swarms that have been worsened by climate change, or the secondary impacts of our current global coronavirus pandemic—the baseline data being collected and distributed by the IUCN and the New Mexico BioPark Society is of critical importance as we develop strategies for recovery.

These programs rely on high quality data documenting—not just the range or population of rare species, but also information concerning their habitats, the impact climate change is having at small scales, and a variety of other factors.

Office of Species Survivallaura c carlson, 2020, Graphite and watercolor on paper.

As we begin to emerge from our homes and engage more with the world-at-large, I encourage you to assist with these projects and find a citizen science initiative that suits your interests. Such programs, especially iNaturalist, have proven to be incredible resources for scientists. These datasets document the spread of invasive species, the response of plants to climate change at a variety of scales, and even the changes that ecosystems undergo following local extinctions. Records derived from citizen scientists are even used to determine the need for protected areas. Even the unremarkable plants in our own neighborhoods may hold tremendous value in tracking the changes in the ecosystems we rely on and provide valuable baselines for interpreting future changes.

Even though the news presents a conflicting view of the direction our ecosystems are heading to—you can contribute to our efforts to accurately assess the trends and engage in meaningful time observing your own habitat. You can assist in our efforts to better understand how our environment has adapted to the changes that have impacted our world and create a more livable future for the species that surround us.

Clayton Meredith is the Species Survival Officer for Plants at the New Mexico BioPark Society. His current role is focused on assessing conservation status of medicinal plants, developing conservation strategies for rare relatives of medicinal plants, and engaging the public to contribute to citizen science initiatives. With a background in archaeology, and human ecology, his previous research projects ranged from examinations of ancient Maya cooking in ritual contexts, to interactions between forest ecology and the earliest inhabitants of Central America.

Banner Image: laura c carlson, Office of Species Survival,  2020, Graphite and watercolor on paper.

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