Forecasting biodiversity losses in Wallacea from ecological and evolutionary patterns and processes.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Inst of Biological and Environmental Sci


The Wallacea region, lying between the Borneo to the west and Papau New Guinea to the east, is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, hosting incredibly high levels of biodiversity, much of which is unique to the region. This exceptional level of biodiversity and endemism reflects evolutionary diversification and radiation over millions of years in one of the world's most geologically complex and active regions. The region's exceptional biodiversity, however, is threatened by climate change, direct exploitation and habitat destruction and fragmentation from land use change. Continued habitat loss and fragmentation is expected to precipitate population declines, increase extinction rates, and could also lead to 'reverse speciation' where disturbance pushes recently diverged species together, leading to increased hybridisation, genetic homogenisation, and species' collapse. Already, approximately 1,300 Indonesian species have been listed as at risk of extinction, but the vast majority of the region's biodiversity has not been assessed and we lack basic information on the distribution and diversification of many groups, let alone understanding of what processes drove their diversification, how they will respond to future environmental change, and how to minimize species' extinctions and losses of genetic diversity while balancing future sustainable development needs.

In response to the need for conservation and management strategies to minimize the loss of Wallacea's unique biodiversity under future environmental change and future development scenarios, we will develop ForeWall, a genetically explicit individual-based model of the origin and future of the region's biodiversity. ForeWall will integrate state-of-the-art eco-evolutionary modelling with new and existing ecological and evolutionary data for terrestrial and aquatic taxa including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, snails, damselflies and soil microbes, to deliver fresh understanding of the processes responsible for the generation, diversification, and persistence of Wallacea's endemic biodiversity. After testing and calibrating ForeWall against empirical data, we will forecast biodiversity dynamics across a suite of taxa under multiple environmental change and economic development scenarios. We will develop a set of alternative plausible biodiversity management/mitigation options to assess the effectiveness of these for preserving ecological and evolutionary patterns and processes across the region, allowing for policy-makers to minimise biodiversity losses during sustainable development. Our project will thus not only provide novel understanding of how geological and evolutionary processes have interacted to generate this biodiversity hotspot, but also provide policy- and decision-makers with tools and evidence to help preserve it.

Planned Impact

Developing management options that can mitigate against the potential loss of Wallacea's incredibly high levels of biodiversity and endemism is vital - not only for preserving the highly unique evolutionary lineages there, but also for protecting the many ecosystem services that biodiversity provides within the region. This project focuses on the co-development of models of the historical, contemporary, and future drivers of Wallacea's unique taxa. The project can result in a number of important impacts and we will put in place mechanisms such that these impacts can be delivered during and after this particular project has ended.

Development need for a new modelling approach: Many organisations and individuals working across a broad range of sectors can benefit from an increased understanding of how best to protect biodiversity in Wallacea. Sectors that can benefit include tourism, especially the rapidly growing ecotourism sector, agriculture and agroforestry (for example, pollination and pest control services are much better delivered by a rich and healthy natural biota), and organisations tasked with conservation management (e.g. National Parks, conservation NGO's and provincial governments). They will all benefit by being able to co-develop and apply the novel spatial planning tool ForeWall that will be produced during this project.

Our soil microbial research has further potential benefits to several industries, including biotechnology companies, interested in the physiology and ecology of microorganisms. For example, this project will contribute significantly to understanding of the spatial distribution of archaeal and bacterial nitrifiers, including recently discovered Comammox organisms, for which metabolism understanding is still at its infancy. Greater understanding of their distribution and associated trials of cultivation may lead on a longer-term basis to the discovery of novel genes and gene products, with potential economic impact for pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries.

Furthermore, our project is designed to facilitate development of the scientific capabilities of Indonesian ecologists and evolutionary biologists in a way that can provide lasting benefits to the academic community itself as well as to a range of stakeholders that can benefit from stronger local expertise in spatial ecology and evolutionary biology, in particular in the application of models to inform policies aimed at balancing the competing needs of different sectors for land use. Specifically, we will provide two training courses to Indonesian participants (both available for up to 20 participants). One will be focused on connectivity and spatial population modelling and will draw on successful previous courses that we have run in Europe, North and South America and in China. The second will focus on the application of phylogenetic analyses.

Impacts outside of Wallacea: While this project focuses on Wallacea, the functionality in ForeWall can have utility in many other regions. Comparing spatial prioritisation of areas for protected status when they are gained using a model such as ForeWall with those delivered using existing methods will be of substantial interest in any region where there has been substantial diversification. As such a wide community of organisations with interests in protecting biodiversity are likely to benefit from the availability of the ForeWall software. As well as a paper presenting ForeWall, we will run workshops introducing the software at major international conferences to potentially include, ESEB, IALE and SCB. IALE and SCB are both particularly good venues for publicising the availability of the software to a mixed audience of both academics and conservation organisations or spatial planners.


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Description We have developed a new method that enables improved understanding of the geographical origins of different groups of species. Previous methods used to make this type of inference ignored the fact that many species have gone extinct through evolutionary history and thus the conclusions are solely based on the current species, where they currently occur and their genetic relationships to one another. Our new method accounts for past extinctions in reconstructing past spatial distributions of ancestral species. Using this method we have discovered that hummingbirds are most likely to have initially colonised and begun diversifying in N America. This is an important result given substantial debate around the geographic origins of this large and important group of birds. We are now applying this same method to multiple groups of organisms in SE Asia.
Exploitation Route The method that is described above is likely to receive wide usage in the many evolutionary studies that seek to understand the geographical histories of lineages.
Sectors Education,Environment