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Species on the brink of extinction

Biodiversity in the Anthropocene

We have now entered a novel geological epoch, the Anthropocene, which is characterized by severe anthropogenic pressures to the global environment. The planet is facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis, with current extinction rates 1000 times higher than the background extinction rate. In order to halt this phenomenon, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) established the currently running CBD ‘Aichi’ Targets, the most important of which is Target 12: ‘by 2020, the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained’. Nevertheless, despite the development of numerous conservation initiatives, predictions on biodiversity loss detainment remain rather ominous: extinction rates under current management schemes continue to increase and are bound to accelerate under any potential future climate scenario1. Current practices fail to keep track of the efficiency/success of implemented measures, since current conservation spending remains well below that required to restore rates of extinction to natural levels. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is at the forefront of global conservation endeavors and classifies taxa into 9 threat categories according to population and geographical criteria. Thus far, IUCN has assessed 85,604 species globally, with nearly 30% (24307 taxa) rendered as threatened due to rapid habitat loss and ecological disruption. However, not only the status assessment was based – in most cases – solely on geographic coverage criteria, thus failing to harbor crucial elements of species fitness, (e.g., population size and genetic diversity), but also 17% of the species’ IUCN assessments are already outdated, as a result of underfunding.

A triage enigma

The persistent and often escalating threats to biodiversity, coupled with underfunding, make it inevitable that conservation managers apply a triage procedure in decision making. Conservation triage focuses on prioritizing species, populations or habitats based on biodiversity benefits, recovery potential and costs to achieve a desired goal. An effective tool towards that end is Population Viability Analysis (PVA) coupled with Species Distribution Models (SDMs). PVA is used to support conservation decision making by providing empirical evaluations of different management actions for the species or population in question. SDMs are the most widely used tools to forecast the effects of climate change on biodiversity and greatly enhance the effectiveness of conservation actions.

Biodiversity in numbers

Greece lies at the center of the Mediterranean biodiversity hotspot, one of the most important biodiversity hotspots worldwide. Greece hosts ca. 32% (2529 species) of the European IUCN flora and fauna2. Currently, 74 Critically Endangered, 119 Endangered and 180 Vulnerable species (IUCN 2017) at national and global level occur in Greece. Greece is no exception as to the doubtful efficiency of global conservation efforts. Fifty of the CR taxa were assessed prior to 2012 and were classified as such, based solely on geographical criteria and without any data regarding their population trend; the latter being one of the most fundamental criteria regarding the threat categorization according to IUCN.

Our goal and mission

Most conservation studies focus only on the extent and quality of the species habitat. It is only for the few charismatic species that conservation efforts include aspects of species biology, such as genetic diversity, reproductive success, and monitoring of population size. Therefore, there is an urgent need to include genetic data and species distribution modelling in the extinction risk estimation of threatened and endangered taxa, so as to improve the assessment of such taxa, since not a single taxon has been evaluated under this integrated and multidisciplinary scheme. Thus, the current project will try to address this gap, by compiling and assessing scientific information on the geographical distribution, population dynamics, and genetic diversity in order to provide a solid informative background for designing more effective conservation measures. This will be carried out for all the Critically Endangered species reported from Greece and the current project will actually constitute the first synthetic assessment of the most prone to extinction species in the EU and the globe.

In the next years, we will try to:

  • estimate the levels of intra- and inter-population genetic diversity and consequently, we will lay the basis for future management and fundamentally contribute to a comprehensive evaluation of species extinction risk. In parallel, we will employ a phylogenetic analysis framework to elucidate the differentiation among populations and reveal the potential existence of meta-population structures across different populations of the same species. This is of uttermost importance, as it will shed light on the species’ vulnerability as a whole, caused by genetic bottlenecks and genetic drift driven stochasticity.

  • perform PVA modelling of the effects of demographic, environmental and genetic stochasticity and its results will be used to support conservation decision making by providing empirical evaluations of different currently operating management actions for the species and populations in question.

  • apply SDM techniques in order to provide an estimate regarding the projected species ranges under future climate change scenarios and identify the species more likely to face severe environmental pressure.

  • to identify potential gaps between current CR species occurrences and protection areas and reveal geographic mismatches and thus potential shortcomings in protection measures.

This project has received funding from the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI) and the General Secretariat for Research and Technology (GSRT), under grant agreement No [2418].

Kostas Kougioumoutzis
Post-Doctoral Researcher