Diversify Your Species: New Paper from NatureNet Fellow Danny Karp

September 15, 2014

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The great tinamou is a evolutionarily distinct bird that thrives in tropical rainforest, but declines in farmland. © Patrick Coin/flickr

First, the depressing news: humanity is driving half of all life on Earth to extinction, mainly through land conversion for agriculture. Now, the encouraging news: a recent study published in Science suggests that farmers have the power to prevent a lot of these extinctions—and the loss of millions of years of evolutionary history (called phylogenetic diversity) that these species represent—simply by adopting changes in their practices like crop diversification and maintaining habitat near their fields.

While the study found (no surprise) that intact forests in Costa Rica harbor the greatest number of evolutionarily distinct bird species and single-crop farms the fewest, it also found that diversified ag lands can be a good middle ground for conservation. That means not just a wider variety of species than found on monocropped farms, but also 600 million more years of preserved phylogenetic diversity.

Study co-lead author Danny Karp (who’s also a Conservancy NatureNet Fellow) says this is the first research he knows of that looks at ag’s impacts on biodiversity in an evolutionary context — and, he argues, that perspective matters for successful conservation.

“One of my colleagues likens it to the same principle as having a robust stock portfolio,” says Karp. “You want a lot of different kinds of stocks, or in our case, evolutionarily distinct species, so even if the market crashes some of them will still do well.”

Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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