A study was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology that addresses habitat loss threatening the extinction of an ever-growing number of species. Many wildlife advocates and conservation professionals rely on the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”, or monitoring and protecting a single representative species to maintain healthy wildlife. However, this new research from University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests that habitats are better served if conservation efforts focus on a collection of species rather than a single species.

“Efforts around the world are going into countering a decline in biodiversity,” says Adam Ford, study author and Canada research chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology at UBC (Okanagan campus). “While we would love to be able to protect all habitats for all species, organizations tend to focus their efforts on a few species and not everyone shares the same priorities.”

According to Fort and his research team, the problem with surrogate species is that people rarely agree on which species that should be and there is a tendency to favour charismatic species like grizzly bears and wolves, over lesser-known but equally-important species. To address that imbalance in selecting surrogate species, the researchers began looking at how to group species together to present a more objective and representative sample of the habitats that need protecting.

Using a publicly available dataset of species-habitat associations, the team of researchers compared the surrogacy value for 1,012 species and 64 habitat types in B.C. They used a conditional entropy metric to quantify pairwise associations between species via their occurrence in different habitat types.

The analysis reveals that game and non-game species surrogacy groups do not significantly differ in either the frequency of captured pairwise associations or their coverage of species. These results suggest that funding game species conservation is likely providing some benefits to non-game species, but optimal habitat-based conservation outcomes will come from a combination of taxa. This analysis provides an important step in influencing management decisions for the preservation of biodiversity.

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“We discovered what we called an ‘all-star’ team of species for each of the province’s nine wildlife management units, as well as an all-star team for the province as a whole,” says Sarah Falconer, graduate student at Laurentian University and study co-author. “Our findings suggest that if we commit to preserving these collections of species rather than just the charismatic megafauna, we’re likely to achieve much better conservation outcomes.”

Adds Ford: “Perhaps we should not be focusing on figuring out which species is the best conservation surrogate, but which groups of species bring the most people together to protect the most biodiversity.”

The study, “Evaluating policy-relevant surrogate taxa for biodiversity conservation: a case study from British Columbia” received funding from Canada Foundation for Innovation, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canada Research Chairs program.

To read the full study, click here.

To find out more about UBC’s Okanagan campus click here.

Featured image of grizzly bear by Joshua J. Cotten @jcotten.

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