The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals areas with the potential to lose species that are not presently in danger. Species in these 'hotspots' have a latent risk of extinction; that is, they are currently less threatened than their biology would suggest, usually because they inhabit regions or habitats still comparatively unmodified by human activity.
The new research shows that over the next few decades, many species currently deemed safe could leapfrog those deemed high risk to become highly threatened. The comprehensive Red List, prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural resources, classifies species according to categories of threat running from 'extinct' to 'least concern'.
Among the species with the highest latent extinction risk according to the new study are the North American reindeer, the musk ox, the Seychelles flying fox, and the brown lemur.
Dr Marcel Cardillo, from the Division of Biology at Imperial College London and lead author of the research, said: "We can see this leapfrogging happening now, for example with the Guatemalan howler monkey, which was classified as being on the 'least concern' list in 2000 but which moved to the 'endangered' list in 2004 as it lost much of its forest habitat. We hope conservationists will use our findings to pre-empt future species losses rather than concentrating solely on those species already under threat."
The researchers identified species with the highest latent risks by comparing their current extinction risk and the risk predicted from their biological traits. Particular biological indicators of elevated risk in a species were large body mass, a low rate of reproduction and geographical restriction to a small part of the world.
The research reveals the top twenty hotspots for latent extinction risk in mammals, which include New Guinea, with the greatest latent risk; the Indian Ocean islands; Borneo; and Northern Canada and Alaska (For full list see Notes to Editors). The hotspots combine relatively low human impact with a mammal fauna made up of species which are inherently sensitive to disturbance. The research takes into account the projected human population growth in these areas up to 2015.
Professor Andy Purvis, also from Imperial's Division of Biology and a co-author of the research, added: "Most conservation resources are spent in regions where the conflict between people and the natural system is entrenched. That's understandable, because we can see the damage that we are doing and we want to put it right, but repairing damage tends to be very expensive.
"Latent risk hotspots might provide cost-effective options for conservation; they're places that are relatively intact, and preventing damage is likely to be cheaper and more effective than trying to repair it," he said.
Latent risk is particularly low in many parts of the world already modified by human activity, such as Europe, Japan and New Zealand. Here, human impact has already been felt meaning that there are comparatively few surviving species with high latent risk.
The work was carried out by Imperial researchers in collaboration with scientists from the Zoological Society of London and the University of Virginia.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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