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Global conservation of species’ niches

Abstract

Environmental change is rapidly accelerating, and many species will need to adapt to survive1. Ensuring that protected areas cover populations across a broad range of environmental conditions could safeguard the processes that lead to such adaptations1,2,3. However, international conservation policies have largely neglected these considerations when setting targets for the expansion of protected areas4. Here we show that—of 19,937 vertebrate species globally5,6,7,8—the representation of environmental conditions across their habitats in protected areas (hereafter, niche representation) is inadequate for 4,836 (93.1%) amphibian, 8,653 (89.5%) bird and 4,608 (90.9%) terrestrial mammal species. Expanding existing protected areas to cover these gaps would encompass 33.8% of the total land surface—exceeding the current target of 17% that has been adopted by governments. Priority locations for expanding the system of protected areas to improve niche representation occur in global biodiversity hotspots9, including Colombia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa and southwest China, as well as across most of the major land masses of the Earth. Conversely, we also show that planning for the expansion of protected areas without explicitly considering environmental conditions would marginally reduce the land area required to 30.7%, but that this would lead to inadequate niche representation for 7,798 (39.1%) species. As the governments of the world prepare to renegotiate global conservation targets, policymakers have the opportunity to help to maintain the adaptive potential of species by considering niche representation within protected areas1,2.

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Fig. 1: Coverage of species’ niches by existing protected areas.
Fig. 2: Priority areas for covering species’ niches.

Data availability

The climatic data12,40, WDPA (http://www.protectedplanet.net)14, and World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas (http://keybiodiversityareas.org)16 are freely available online. The habitat maps can be obtained from their creators5,6,7,8. All other data are available in an online digital repository, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1035485. Source Data for Figs. 1, 2 and Extended Data Figs. 1, 2, 69 are provided with the paper.

Code availability

All code is available in an online digital repository at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1035485.

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Acknowledgements

J.O.H. was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship. R.A.F. had an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. G.F.F. is funded by the European Research Council (grant agreement no. 772284; IceCommunities). This work was supported by a research allocation from the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources (NeCTAR) project.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

J.O.H., J.R.R. and R.A.F. designed the study. C.R., G.M.B., G.F.F. and S.H.M.B. obtained the data. J.O.H. performed the analysis and drafted the manuscript. All authors discussed the results, contributed critically to the drafts, and gave final approval for publication.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jeffrey O. Hanson.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks John L. Gittleman, Craig Moritz and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Sensitivity analysis.

Sensitivity analysis showing how the percentage of climatic partitions that are adequately represented by protected areas for different species (n = 19,937) depends on the number of partitions used to subdivide the distributions of those species. Generally, a smaller proportion of species’ partitions tend to be adequately represented as the total number of partitions increases. Despite this trend, it is clear that many species have a very low proportion of their partitions adequately represented, regardless of the total number of partitions. This analysis also shows the effect of setting different target caps for species with distributions larger than 10,000,000 km2. However, the effect of this is negligible, because only a small fraction of the species in our dataset were subjected to the cap (1.03%).

Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Existing system of protected areas.

To aid visual interpretation, data show the proportion of 25-km2 planning units with over 50% coverage by protected areas within 2,500-km2 grid cells.

Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Maps for the Italian agile frog (R. latastei).

a, Extent of suitable habitat data for this species. b, Planning units with suitable habitat that have more than 50% of their land covered by protected areas. c, d, Climatic variation characterized by the first (c) and second (d) principal components of 19 bioclimatic variables. e, Climatic partitions used to subdivide the extent of suitable habitat for this species.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Maps for the giant panda (A. melanoleuca).

a, Extent of suitable habitat data for this species. b, Planning units with suitable habitat that have more than 50% of their land covered by protected areas. c, d, Climatic variation characterized by the first (c) and second (d) principal components of 19 bioclimatic variables. e, Climatic partitions used to subdivide the extent of suitable habitat for this species.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Maps for the great snipe (G. media).

a, Extent of suitable habitat data for this species. b, Planning units with suitable habitat that have more than 50% of their land covered by protected areas. c, d, Climatic variation characterized by the first (c) and second (d) principal components of 19 bioclimatic variables. e, Climatic partitions used to subdivide the extent of suitable habitat for this species.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Spatial prioritization generated without explicitly accounting for species’ niches.

To aid visual interpretation, data show the proportion of 25-km2 planning units selected in 2,500-km2 grid cells.

Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 7 Distribution of reserve sizes.

a, Existing global system of protected areas. b, Existing global system of protected areas, plus the niche-based prioritization based on the partitioned habitat maps. c, Existing global system of protected areas, plus the distribution-level prioritization based on the unpartitioned habitat maps. The red dashed vertical line denotes the size of reserves comprising a single terrestrial 25-km2 planning unit. Reserve sizes are depicted on a log10 scale.

Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 8 Environmental niche representation and geographic distribution size.

ac, The relationship between the percentage of species’ climatic partitions that are adequately represented by existing protected areas and the species’ distribution size (that is, extent of suitable habitat), for amphibian (a), avian (b) and mammalian (c) species. Each point denotes a different species. Because all of the analyses accommodated each of the seasonal distribution of each migratory bird species separately, these species are depicted using data for their most poorly represented seasonal distribution.

Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 9 Performance of adding Key Biodiversity Areas to existing protected area system.

The number of threatened species’ niches adequately represented when adding all terrestrial Key Biodiversity Areas to the global system of protected areas (red dashed line), compared with adding randomly selected planning units that occupy the same geographic extent. Threatened species are defined as those listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the Red List of the IUCN.

Source Data

Supplementary information

Supplementary Notes

This file contains assessments of the Italian agile frog (Rana latastei), giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), and great snipe (Gallinago media, breeding distribution).

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

Principal component analyses summary. This table summarizes the principal components analyses used to characterise the species' realized niches.

Supplementary Table 2

Species distribution and representation data. This table contains information on species' coverage by the existing protected area system, existing protected area system combined with terrestrial Key Biodiversity Areas, niche-based prioritization, and prioritization generated using conventional approaches without niche data.

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Hanson, J.O., Rhodes, J.R., Butchart, S.H.M. et al. Global conservation of species’ niches. Nature 580, 232–234 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2138-7

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