Primate, Carnivore Diversity At Risk

by Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 20, 2002 (ENS) - Scientists have discovered that the greatest concentration of all primate and carnivore evolutionary history exists within those species found in just 25 biodiversity hotspots. About 55 percent of the world's primates and 22 percent of carnivores are found only within biodiversity hotspots - and yet they represent 70 percent of the evolutionary history for the entire species.

These species - whose combined evolutionary ages total 2.6 billion years - represent genetic lineages that are vital to the future diversity, evolution and survival of these animals, argues a collaborative study published by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at Conservation International and biologists from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Their research appears in this week's issue of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

"If one of these species in a biodiversity hotspot goes extinct we not only lose that particular animal, but we also lose its contribution to the evolution and ultimately the survival of that species as a whole," said John Gittleman, University of Virginia evolutionary biologist and coauthor of the report. "You only see the incredible diversity of life that currently exists because previous species were able to develop and evolve over time."

The combined evolutionary ages of these animals amount to 343 million more years of evolutionary history than a similar random sample taken from other portions of the earth.

As species disappear, the genetic base for the future evolution of new primates and carnivores also begins to shrink. Scientists liken this danger to the extinction of the dinosaurs, in which nearly every representative of an entire evolutionary group vanished from the planet.

The report is another demonstration of the importance of biodiversity hotspots, the authors say, because the extinction of these species due to the continued destruction of the natural ecosystems in these regions will disrupt and deplete genetic lineages which have taken millions of years to evolve.

The hotspots are 25 highly threatened areas that together contain more than 60 percent of the world's terrestrial plant and animal species -within just 1.4 percent of the planet's land surface. British ecologist Norman Myers developed the concept of hotspots in 1988, and Conservation International and other groups have adopted the concept to help set conservation priorities.

The importance of preserving biodiversity hotspots can be seen in the examples of two lemurs that are found only in Madagascar. The weasel lemur has an estimated evolution history of 18.6 million years and the ruffed lemur dates back an estimated 16.6 million years. By comparison, the evolutionary history of modern humans dates back only 7.1 million years.

"We are facing double jeopardy. Not only are we in danger of losing species, but we are facing the loss of their legacy," said Gustavo Fonseca, CABS executive director. "These animals found in the biodiversity hotspots represent a huge repository of genetic diversity which is invaluable to the advancement of scientific research and the preservation of future biodiversity."

The 25 biodiversity hotspots identified by biologists at Conservation International and other environmental groups are now under extreme threat - many hotspots have lost more than 90 percent of their original natural habitat.

"If the Louvre in Paris or the Pyramids were to be destroyed, there would be public outrage," said Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier. "When a rainforest disappears, however, nobody expresses alarm. Yet the biodiversity hotspots hold an equal amount of the Earth's treasures."

Conservation International recently announced an unprecedented global initiative to stop species extinctions in biodiversity hotspots and to protect large areas of major tropical wilderness areas. To launch this effort, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is providing the group with the largest gift ever given to a private conservation group: a series of grants totaling up to $261 million over 10 years.

With an alliance of conservation partners, Conservation International aims to secure $1.5 billion in private investments over the next 10 years, and leverage another $4.5 billion from the public sector.

A blueprint for the initiative was developed during the "Defying Nature's End" conference organized by CABS and co-chaired by Gordon Moore and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson at the California Institute of Technology in August 2000. The initiative will create global alliances, bolster scientific field research and offer new economic options to protect biodiversity.

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