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15.3: Studying Species and Populations

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    To save a species from extinction, it is vital to have a firm grasp on the species’ distinctive characters, in other words its natural history. To obtain this natural history information, 10 important factors need to be considered:

    To save a species from extinction, it is vital to have a firm grasp on the species’ distinctive characters, in other words its natural history.

    • Population biology: How many individuals are there in the population? How many males, females, juveniles, breeding adults, and individuals past breeding age are there? What is the species’ life expectancy? How have these aspects changed over time?
    • Habitat: In what kind of environment can the species be found? How do these ecosystems change over time and space? Does the species have a complex life history that requires multiple habitats (e.g. frogs that live on land generally need water for breeding)? What factors are important to maintain suitable habitat?
    • Distribution: Where in the world can the species of concern be found? At what rate is its distribution increasing/decreasing? What factors drive these increases/decreases?
    • Morphology: What are the defining traits, or range of traits, of the species’ appearance? How do the species’ unique morphological characteristics help it survive? Are there closely-related species that appear similar (i.e. cryptic species) and with which it can be misidentified?
    • Limiting resources: What types of resources does the species need to survive? Are any of these resources in short supply? Does the distribution of these important resources change over time and space?
    • Physiology: Are there any special requirements the species’ physical and biochemical processes need for it to grow, survive, and reproduce? What are the conditions under which meeting these requirements is especially hard?
    • Behavior: How do individuals act or behave? Is the species sedentary, nomadic, or migratory? Do individuals group together, disperse at random throughout landscapes, or space themselves out at regular distances? How do these behaviors help it survive?
    • Genetics: How much do genes vary within the species? How are the species’ genetics linked to its morphology, physiology, and behavior? Are there local genetic adaptations? Is the genetic variation in key traits sufficient to allow the species to adapt to environmental changes? Are there any deleterious genetic concerns?
    • Biological interactions: In what ways do individuals of the species interact with each other and with other species? Which of these interactions are critical for survival? Are there any competitors, predators, parasites, or diseases affecting the species?
    • Interactions with humans: How sensitive is the species to human activity? Do humans use the species in any way? Is the species sustainably harvested? Is the species associated with human-wildlife conflict?

    Understanding the natural history of a species directly informs conservation strategies. For example, if we know where a species occurs and what its habitat needs are, we are in a better position to prioritize which areas need to be protected or how ecosystems need to be restored. Similarly, if we know that an important food resource is missing, perhaps during a drought or due to human activities, conservationists could provide supplemental feeding until the limiting resource has recovered (Figure 15.3.1). Depending on the species in question, some factors play a more important role than others. For example, managing a disease outbreak may play a more important role in the conservation of a widespread migratory bird (that can spread diseases to other species), while managing for genetic diversity may play a more prominent role in the conservation of a small population of fishes restricted to only one lake. For many widespread species, different factors affect different subpopulations. In such cases each subpopulation might need to be managed as its own evolutionary significant unit (ESU; see e.g. Dubach et al., 2013) to retain unique local adaptations and genetic markers.

    Figure 15.3.1 In some areas where diminishing food supplies threaten vulture populations, conservationists are supplementing their diets by placing carcasses at “vulture restaurants”. These vulture restaurants often depend on cooperation with local farmers who donate livestock that have died. Photograph by Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, CC BY 4.0.

    Obtaining natural history data

    Conservationists rely on several resources and techniques to obtain natural history information. Initial steps often involve reviewing published and unpublished literature to understand what is known (and not known) about a species. Literature reviews do have some drawbacks: they can take a long time, may uncover contradictory information, and may lack critical information relevant to a local area or specific population. For this reason, and especially when decisions need to be made under tight schedules, conservation biologists may need to speed up their initial species review by sourcing natural history information from subject matter experts who are familiar with the species or ecosystem of concern.

    While literature reviews, expert opinions, and traditional ecological knowledge are important first steps to collect natural history information, the most reliable method remains fieldwork, where multiple individuals from the population of concern in the area of interest are observed repeatedly over time. Indeed, most of natural history information we have today was obtained during detailed notetaking by naturalists—biologists who dedicate much of their time to better understand the natural world—in the field.

    Unfortunately, there are still major gaps in our understanding of the living world. Consequently, a very large number of threatened species, including better-known groups (e.g. reptiles, Tolley et al., 2016), lack the kinds of data necessary to ensure that we can give them the best chance of survival. Filling these gaps is also becoming harder since it is costly and sometimes logistically impossible (or dangerous) for naturalists to spend an extended period in the field. There is also a trade-off in the breadth and depth of data collection possible: the more area one covers, the less detailed the data; conversely, when one collects more detailed data, the scope of the study is reined in for logistical constraints. Further, there is also a limit to the number of organisms any one individual observer can study at any one time.

    Species distribution modeling (SDM), also known as environmental niche modeling, is becoming increasingly popular for determining a species’ distribution and habitat needs. SDMs overlay species location data, obtained during field work, onto a selection of relevant environmental variables (e.g. forest cover, elevation, soil type) using GIS software, after which special modeling algorithms estimate the species’ ecological niche and distribution (Figure 15.3.2). This information enables conservation biologists to identify previously unknown habitat patches (which may represent undiscovered and unprotected populations) or empty habitats (which may be used in translocations). While distribution modeling offers very useful conservation tools, it is important to learn about the different techniques under the guidance of an expert to avoid making costly mistakes (McPherson et al., 2006; Pearson et al., 2006).

    Species distribution modeling, also known as environmental niche modeling, is becoming increasingly popular for determining a species’ distribution and habitat needs.

    Figure 15.3.2 A species distribution model over the global range of the Grauer’s gorilla. Purple and green areas indicate potentially suitable habitat while yellow and red areas indicate unsuitable habitat. The analysis highlighted that the gorilla is found in high-altitude forests far from deforestation activity. The map also shows which areas should be safeguarded to secure the species’ survival. Source: Plumptre et al., 2016, CC BY 4.0.

    Experimentation offers powerful methods to better understand competing theories and hypotheses, and to gain insight into how specific management actions may influence population dynamics. Experimentation is often associated with controlled environments such as laboratories; however, this is often impossible and sometimes even unethical to perform laboratory experiments on threatened species. Instead, conservation researchers may opt for natural experiments, which allows for the target species or population to be studied in its natural ecosystem.

    This page titled 15.3: Studying Species and Populations is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.