Wilderness areas halve the extinction risk of terrestrial biodiversity

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Reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss is a major challenge facing humanity1, as the consequences of biological annihilation would be irreversible for humankind2,3,4. Although the ongoing degradation of ecosystems5,6 and the extinction of species that comprise them7,8 are now well-documented, little is known about the role that remaining wilderness areas have in mitigating the global biodiversity crisis. Here we model the persistence probability of biodiversity, combining habitat condition with spatial variation in species composition, to show that retaining these remaining wilderness areas is essential for the international conservation agenda. Wilderness areas act as a buffer against species loss, as the extinction risk for species within wilderness communities is—on average—less than half that of species in non-wilderness communities. Although all wilderness areas have an intrinsic conservation value9,10, we identify the areas on every continent that make the highest relative contribution to the persistence of biodiversity. Alarmingly, these areas—in which habitat loss would have a more-marked effect on biodiversity—are poorly protected. Given globally high rates of wilderness loss10, these areas urgently require targeted protection to ensure the long-term persistence of biodiversity, alongside efforts to protect and restore more-degraded environments.

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Fig. 1: Global probabilities of species extinction for communities of invertebrates and vascular plants associated with 1-km2 grid cells.
Fig. 2: Relative contribution of wilderness areas to the persistence of plant and invertebrate communities.
Fig. 3: Relative contribution of each wilderness grid cell to the estimated probability of persistence of species within invertebrate and vascular plant communities.

Data availability

All input data used in these analyses derive from published sources cited in the Methods. Extended Data Table 1, 2 and Supplementary Table 1 report the results for each realm and each wilderness block. Any other datasets generated in the current study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

R code for deriving estimates of compositional dissimilarity and the proportion of persisting species is available from ref. 17.


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This work was funded by Research Agreement no. 2017113325 between CSIRO and the University of Queensland. M.D.M. acknowledges support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 793212).

Author information

M.D.M., S.F. and J.E.M.W. framed the study. M.D.M., T.D.H. and A.J.H. carried out the analyses. M.D.M., S.F., T.D.H., A.J.H. and J.E.M.W. discussed and interpreted the results. M.D.M., S.F. and J.E.M.W. wrote the manuscript with support from T.D.H. and A.J.H.

Correspondence to Moreno Di Marco.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Peer review information Nature thanks Elizabeth Boakes, Samantha Hill and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Global-scale probabilities of species extinction for communities of vascular plants associated with each grid cell.

The underlying map reports the estimated proportion of native species—originally associated with a particular grid cell—that are expected to disappear from their distribution, owing to the current condition of the habitats in which they occur.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Global-scale probabilities of species extinction for communities of invertebrates associated with each grid cell.

The underlying map reports the estimated proportion of native species—originally associated with a particular grid cell—that are expected to disappear from their distribution, owing to the current condition of the habitats in which they occur.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Global-scale probabilities of species extinction for communities of invertebrates and vascular plants associated with each grid cell, accounting for habitat connectivity.

The underlying map reports the estimated proportion of native species—originally associated with a particular grid cell—that are expected to disappear from their distribution (owing to the current condition of the habitats in which they occur, as well as the level of connectivity between habitats).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Distribution of the top-five blocks of wilderness identified for each realm.

Numbers in the map report the identifier codes for the block (corresponding to Supplementary Table 1).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Frequency distribution of the contributions that individual wilderness grid cells make to the probability of persistence of invertebrate and vascular plant communities (δp).

The histogram bars represent the relative frequency distribution of the δp values for wilderness pixels inside (blue bars) and outside (grey bars) protected areas, in each biogeographical realm.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Analytical framework used to estimate the probability of persistence of biological communities.

The framework combines estimates of spatial turnover in species composition (from which ecologically scaled environments are derived) with estimates of habitat condition. The framework produces a spatially explicit (1 km2) estimate of biodiversity persistence, from which a number of metrics are derived: the proportion of species committed to extinction, the contribution of wilderness areas to global species persistence, and the potential reduction in persistence in case of wilderness degradation.

Extended Data Table 1 Mean extinction risk (with s.d. in parentheses) observed across communities of invertebrates and vascular plants in each biogeographical realm, inside and outside wilderness areas
Extended Data Table 2 Difference in the estimated reduction of global species persistence (δp) associated with the loss of a protected or non-protected wilderness pixel

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