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Impacts of urban expansion on natural habitats in global drylands


Urban regions across the world have expanded rapidly in recent decades, affecting fragile natural habitats, including in drylands, and threatening the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 15, ‘life on land’. Yet, few studies have comprehensively investigated impacts of urban expansion on natural dryland habitats globally even though these cover 40% of global land area and provide habitats for 28% of endangered species. Here, we quantify at multiple scales the loss of habitat quality directly and indirectly caused by dryland urban expansion. Direct impacts are conversions of natural habitats to urban land. We define indirect impacts as proximate impacts within 10 km around the expanded urban land footprint. We found that although urban expansion from 1992 to 2016 resulted in an average 0.8% loss of dryland habitat quality, the indirect impacts were 10–15 times greater. By considering the coincidence of habitat-quality loss and threatened species ranges, we found that, globally, nearly 60% of threatened species were affected by such indirect impacts of dryland urban expansion. Our findings suggest that strategic management is imperative to mitigate the substantial impacts of dryland urban expansion on biodiversity.

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Fig. 1: Patterns of natural habitats and dynamics of urban expansion in global drylands.
Fig. 2: Impacts of urban expansion on natural habitats from 1992 to 2016 at the global and biome scale.
Fig. 3: Impacts of urban expansion on natural habitats from 1992 to 2016 at the ecoregion scale.
Fig. 4: Direct and indirect impacts of urban expansion.
Fig. 5: Indirect impacts of urban expansion on threatened species.

Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analysed in this study are publicly available as referenced within the article. All data and scripts are also available from the corresponding author on request.

Code availability

Code used is available at


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We thank R. McDonald (The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, USA) for his insightful comments, which have improved the quality of the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41971270, 41971225 & 41801184) and the 111 project (BP0820003).

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Authors and Affiliations



C.H., Q.H. and Q.R. designed the study and planned the analysis. Q.R. performed the experiments and analysed the data. Q.R. and Q.H. drafted the manuscript. P.S., D.Z. and B.G. contributed to revising the manuscript. All authors contributed to the interpretation of findings, provided revisions to the manuscript and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Chunyang He.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Mark Goddard, Stefanie Herrmann, Fernando Maestre and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Ren, Q., He, C., Huang, Q. et al. Impacts of urban expansion on natural habitats in global drylands. Nat Sustain (2022).

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