Decisions, Decisions! Using Evolution to Get the Most Bang From Your Conservation Buck (1 of 2)

Because of limited resources, conservationists must inevitably make a difficult decision—which ecosystems should we try to preserve? Studying the evolutionary history of the organisms that comprise those ecosystems can help us make decisions that maximize the biodiversity preserved.

By some estimates, we are losing biodiversity at a rate that will halve the number of species on Earth within the next 100 years.1 There are many reasons for trying to slow this rate of loss, but it is certain that, no matter what measures we take, we simply will not be able to save everything. We will have to decide which species and habitats to concentrate our efforts on—and evolutionary history can help us make these difficult choices.

A “saved” species will not be safe for long if its habitat has been destroyed—so conservation efforts have increasingly focused on preserving entire ecosystems, along with the species that comprise them. But how do we decide which ecosystems to preserve? Many scientists argue that we should prioritize ecosystems with the highest biodiversity—and, although there are many other important considerations involved in making these decisions, phylogenetics provides a useful measure of biodiversity.

1 Stuart Pimm, cited in Zimmer, 2001

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Spanish translation of Understanding Evolution For Teachers from the Spanish Society of Evolutionary Biology.