Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems

Keith et al.. PLoS One 8(5): e62111. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062111. Scientific foundations for an IUCN Red List of ecosystems


Red Listing criteria for ecosystems – from Keith et al.

Will Pearse

Will Pearse

I picked this paper because I attended the first half of a workshop based around these criteria at a recent restoration ecology conference. Frankly, I’m amazed by this paper because I would have said a Red List of ecosystems was impossible. There are immense technical challenges in not just putting together but implementing something like this, and it sends shivers down my spine imagining how heated the discussion over ecosystem definitions must have been. I’m going to start by discussing the criteria, and then discuss the next steps (and essentially recapitulate what I said at the workshop).

This isn’t just a theoretical paper, the authors have applied the criteria in the supplementary materials, and I’ve heard that training and classification is going on right now. The criteria seem, at times, somewhat arbitrary in terms of precise numbers, but the figures seem reasonable, the authors are aware of this, and I’m sure others would argue the same is true of the Red List of species. One thing I find interesting is the authors aim to prioritise biodiversity to give “conceptual clarity” over ecosystem function or services (albeit hoping saving biodiversity will save everything), yet (in my eyes) criterion D is essentially ecosystem function anyway. I think much of this draws back to the inherent difficult of defining what an ecosystem actually is; there is no analogue of ‘extinct in the wild’ in this listing framework, probably because a garden of species actively grown and maintained to have a similar composition to a natural state wouldn’t count as an ecosystem. An ecosystem is self-sustaining, and is defined as much by nutrient flow as by what form that nutrient is in at one time. Which is a long-winded way of saying I’m glad function was brought back into the criteria!

What amazed me at this workshop was that these criteria are not the end product for IUCN. They want to ensure that when the list is released, policy-makers will have a handbook to guide them through how to engage with local people on the ground and implement conservation initiatives that everyone agrees on – or, if it’s the choice of everyone involved, to simply let that ecosystem die. Personally, I think this is a task equal (if not greater) in magnitude to generating the Red List itself; libraries are filled with frameworks (e.g., MESMIS, IAD, and many more) and university departments and NGOs are stuffed full of people who have strong and differing opinions on how this could be done. The task, to me, sounds harder than writing a handbook for politicians on how to construct a Red List of ecosystems. That said, ensuring there is a framework in place such that this list isn’t simply thrown out with no regard as to the impact that Red Listing a place where people live is an extremely good idea. Which is a long-winded way of saying I’m glad they (and not me!) are trying, and good luck!

Lynsey McInnes

Lynsey McInnes

This is an absolute beast of a paper and, in fact, has enough going on in it to make up 10 or so meaty articles. Kudos to the authors for forcing everything into one, this action serves to underline that the setup is not just an academic exercise in classifying at risk ecosystems, but a feasible mechanism to bring that risk down.I’m glad Will gave us some background context to the paper, his post converted my sceptical first view of the paper considerably. Sure, there are a ton of authors here, but there’s also been a ton of work carried out.

Littered through my PEGE posts has been a nonchalent call to think more about ecosystems than about individual species, this is partly due to my lack of affection for a particular taxon, but also partly due to a belief, admittedly not rooted in much research, that ecosystems are a more useful unit for conservation than easy to delimit but hard to give equivalent value species.

So, I was initially disappointed that the authors chose ‘risks to biodiversity’ as their unit of risk assessment rather than some compound measure of risk to service or function. However, the authors do a good job of pointing out why this is the most feasible thing to do and flesh our their system more than enough for me to concede that this is probably a good idea and still, as Will says, captures functioning.

I alternately like and dislike the many similarities of the assessment criteria for ecosystems with the criteria for species (decline in distribution, etc.). The similarities probably aid focus and our ability to make the assessments, but I guess the worry is that they skirt around features of ecosystems that don’t have analogues in individual species. Saying that, their criteria to assess interactions, biotic and abiotic, probably covers much of these emergent ecosystem properties. So, really the authors probably have developed a comprehensive set of assessment criteria…

…the next step being the feasibility of implementing them and the uptake of doing something to curb impending ecosystem collapse when it is identified. Not a trivial undertaking one imagines!
How on earth does this happen? How many people (and cash) are needed to carry out these assessments? How do we prioritise which ecosystems to go for first (ones with the most data?, the most at risk?, the most pristine?  an even geographic distribution?). Is the ultimate aim to cover all ecosystems? Which ones might fall through the gaps? Where do newly emerging urban ecosystems stand? Should stakeholders be able to ‘buy’ time on their favoured ecosystem? Its a minefield!

I have to admit I skimmed this paper way too fast, a lot of thought has gone into this framework, that is plain to see, and it looks like actions are already occurring in the ‘right’ direction. Let us hope that funding and/interest does not dwindle too soon.

About will.pearse
Ecology / evolutionary biologist

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