Conservationists have long been committed to the preservation of rare plant and animal species — from California’s colossal sequoias to Atlantic bluefin tuna to China’s giant pandas — without having a rigorous system for determining these unique species’ tangible contributions to human well-being.
A team of ecologists including Florida State University Assistant Professor Stephanie Pau is working to change that. In a new paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the group proposes forward-looking research priorities that could improve our understanding of how rare species benefit human beings.
The scientists, who collaborate through the National Science Foundation-funded Long Term Ecological Research Network, said their study represents a shift in thinking about conservation. Their strategies could help inform global policy initiatives responding to the world’s acute biodiversity crisis, illuminated by the recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
“Rare species are often thought of as delicate creatures that we must protect because they are vulnerable,” Pau said. “They are indeed vulnerable to extinction, but we propose that they can be workhorses in providing ecosystem services — the natural benefits upon which humans depend — by contributing more than their low abundance would suggest. Identifying the ways that rare species make these contributions is a key link between protecting biodiversity and valuing ecosystem services.”
Few studies in the past have explored the ways rare species contribute to ecosystem services. Many people harbor the assumption that a species’ rarity reflects its ecological insignificance. Consequently, we don’t know much about which of these species matter to nature’s life-supporting services — such as storing carbon and providing food — or how much they matter.
“If rare species that are of the most interest to conservation also provide these benefits to people, it creates an added incentive to protect them,” said lead author Laura Dee, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
For example, restoring populations of bluefin tuna could re-establish their role as a robust source of food for people, and protecting giant sequoias could help the towering trees store significant amounts of carbon.
Rare species may offer a kind of insurance against an uncertain future, Dee said, and ecologists risk missing opportunities to buffer the worst effects of climate change and other disruptions by overlooking them in research studies.
“Rare species tend to be the most different from some of the other species that we find in ecosystems,” Dee said. “People are starting to think about whether that means, under climate change and novel conditions, they might play some unique role in the future that might not otherwise be represented by more common species.”
In their paper, the researchers review existing literature and propose distinct categories — accounting for species’ scarcity, exoticism, functional ecological roles and more — that could guide future research on rare species.
Their paper represents collective knowledge gained from long-term research sites across the United States and beyond, and it illustrates the value of extracting the big picture from a synthesis of place-based research.
“This synthesis allowed us to identify general ecological patterns across different sites and species to help determine where and when rare species may contribute to ecosystem services,” Pau said.
The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara organized this research, which was funded by the NSF.