New research shows that small wildlife surveys can reveal the health of entire ecosystems.
Wildlife monitoring is one of the most expensive and difficult aspects of conservation, and it often relies on long-term observations in individual species.
But the study reveals a new and effective method.
It focuses on “interactions” between species, such as insects pollinating flowers or birds feeding on plants.
The results show that a small snapshot of interactions is a reliable indicator of the health of an entire community of species. Specifically, the study looked at whether or not these communities were “fixed”—meaning if all species were doing well or if any were declining to extinction.
The study was conducted by the University of Exeter, McGill University, University of Toronto, Princeton University and MIT.
“All plant and animal communities are supported by an essential network of interactions between species,” said Dr Christopher Kaiser Bunbury, of the Center for Ecology and Conservation at the Exeter Penryn Campus in Cornwall.
“Our study – which combines theory, statistics and real-world data – shows that examining just a few of these interactions can provide ‘big picture’ conclusions about ecosystem health.
“This information is essential for policymakers, scientists and societies, as we try to address the global biodiversity crisis.”
When environmental conditions change, interactions between species often change too — providing an early indication of broader problems.
As such, the study method can identify patterns more quickly than some traditional conservation observations—vital given the rapid changes caused by human activity.
“With minimal resources, we can assess both the persistence of entire ecological networks and the expected success of restoration,” said Dr Benno Simons, of the Exeter Center for Ecology and Conservation.
“Our method is particularly effective at identifying when an ecological community is not static — allowing for rapid detection of extinction risks.”