Exploring the challenges and opportunities for research and policy afforded by South America's extraordinary biodiversity.
South America is both vast and incredibly diverse. Spanning two hemispheres and four major climatic zones, among its countries are Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, four of only seventeen worldwide designated megadiverse countries, comprising at least 5,000 endemic plant species each. Crossing national borders there are also five identified biodiversity hotspots in the continent: the Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado, the Valdivian temperate rainforest, the Tropical Andes, and Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena. Given this extraordinary biodiversity and endemism, it's unsurprising that in any given month Nature Ecology & Evolution includes research and opinion on subjects directly and indirectly relating to South America. For example, last month's Anniversary feature (U. Kutschera,. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 0074; 2017) on the pioneering entomologist and illustrator, Maria Merian, discussed the influence of Suriname on her life's work. This month, Anthwal et al. (article no. 0093) take a South American marsupial opossum, Monodelphis domestica, as a model for understanding evolution of the mammalian middle ear, while Mahé et al. (article no. 0091) find that soil protists, rather than arthropods, are the most diverse eukaryotes in Neotropical rainforests, where the dominance of parasitic phyla may play a role in promoting high animal diversity.
Yet this month we also throw a more explicit focus onto South America. A Feature and a Correspondence touch on disease ecology, a major concern in South America, where the recent Zika epidemic is thought to have originated. Gruber (article no. 0098) looks at the PREDICT project, the world's largest initiative focused on emergent zoonotic diseases, which has identified Amazonian countries as research targets for monitoring wildlife-borne zoonotic disease. The role of the illegal wildlife trade as a vector spreading zoonotic disease leads Alexander and Sanderson (article no. 0090) to suggest that emphasizing this in combination with concerns for conservation could be key to stemming this multi-billion-dollar industry.
Turning to this month's Comments, one of the designated biodiversity hotspots of South America is the Brazilian Cerrado, a vast savannah biome adjacent to the Amazon. Despite worldwide recognition of the importance of this biome, agricultural intensification, limited legal protection and conservation incentives threaten an extinction crisis among the nearly 5,000 plant and vertebrate species found in the Cerrado. Strassburg et al. (article no. 0099) emphasize that this catastrophe can be averted, but will require both political support and finance, and that time is short. The Amazon itself has seen recent successes in curbing deforestation: this is crucial to maintaining its role both as home to one in ten of the world's known species, and as a global carbon sink. However, the same cannot be said for the islands of savannah found within the Amazon. These cover an estimated total area of 267,164 km2, greater than the total area of the UK, but of which only a small fraction is protected, and even less of it well-researched, write de Carvalho and Mustin (article no. 0100). As with the Brazilian Cerrado, improved and increased legislation, political support, and scientific research must combine to ensure these islands are not lost before they are known.
The theme of new challenges and opportunities for conservation is one that applies continent-wide, but nowhere more so than Colombia, where 2016 saw formal ratification of a long-awaited peace deal that it is hoped will end over fifty years of conflict, a period which also saw the loss of one million hectares of forest from this megadiverse country. Although peace is fostered by the deal, new peacetime economic opportunities and development may threaten forest regrowth and conservation. Colombia will need to learn from the successes and setbacks of other post-conflict regions such as San Martín in Peru, in order to promote sustainable, environmentally and biodiversity-friendly development, write Baptiste et al. (article no. 0102).
One solution to these continent-wide conservation needs may be more home-grown research and improved science policy. As de Carvalho and Mustin discuss in their Comment, research lags behind in the highly biodiverse areas of South America. For example, a 2016 study (K. A. Wilson et al., PLoS Biol. 14, e1002413; 2016) found that as one of the top three countries ranked in relative importance for mammal conservation, Peru should be represented in roughly three times as many publications as it actually is. The same goes for the scientists who carry out this research: scientists from highly biodiverse countries are underrepresented in publications featuring research on those countries (G. Stocks et al., Biotropica 40, 397–404; 2008). How to change this? As well as improved science communication and strengthened infrastructure, bringing international conferences to these underrepresented countries could facilitate participation of more senior scientists and, crucially, both junior colleagues and students. The 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology will be held in Cartagena, Colombia in July this year, taking as its mascot Lehmann's poison frog (Oophaga lehmanni, pictured), which is endemic to Colombia but critically endangered due to environmental fragmentation and the illegal wildlife trade. It is to be hoped that the congress and others like it may inspire and bolster a new generation of conservationists to follow in the footsteps of its mascot's namesake, Federico Carlos Lehmann, who fostered the growth of modern conservation biology in Colombia and South America.