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Mapping Earth’s Species to Identify Conservation Priorities

THE HALF-EARTH PROJECT IS ‘UNLOCKING A NEW ERA IN DATA-DRIVEN CONSERVATION.’ The Half-Earth Project has launched online the first phase of their cutting-edge global biodiversity map. This unique, interactive asset uses the latest science and technology to map thousands of species around the world and illuminate where future conservation efforts should be located to best care for our planet and ourselves.

“The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century,” said E.O. Wilson in the New York Times Sunday Review on March 3. “We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it. The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible.”

Born from Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, the Half-Earth Project is providing the urgently needed research, leadership and knowledge necessary to conserve half the planet’s surface. The new map sits at the center of this effort. By mapping the biodiversity of our planet, we can identify the best places to conserve to safeguard the maximum number of species.

“The Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species across the globe to identify the places where we canprotect the highest number of species,” Wilson said. “By determining which blocks of land and sea we can string together for maximum effect, we have the opportunity to support the most biodiverse places in the world as well as the people who call these paradises home.”

The Half-Earth Project is targeting completion of the fine-scale species distribution map for most known terrestrial, marine, and freshwater plant and animal species within 5 years.

“This mapping tool is unlocking a new era in data-driven conservation,” said Paula Ehrlich, President and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and head of the Half-Earth Project. “It will provide the scientific foundation upon which communities, scientists, conservationists and decision-makers can achieve the goal of Half-Earth.”

A $5 million leadership gift from E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation board member Jeff Ubben and his wife Laurie will seed the second phase of the Half-Earth Project’s mapping effort.

“Half-Earth can’t wait. We have to work quickly and we need to be smart about how we do the work,” said Jeff Ubben. “This map will give us the information we need to make strong conservation investments.”

“Ed Wilson framed Half-Earth as a moonshot necessary to preserve the future health of our planet,” Ehrlich said. “The investment in our work from Jeff and Laurie Ubben attaches rocket boosters to this moonshot.”

View article on Half-Earth Project

The 8 Million Species We Don't Know

The history of conservation is a story of many victories in a losing war. Having served on the boards of global conservation organizations for more than 30 years, I know very well the sweat, tears and even blood shed by those who dedicate their lives to saving species. Their efforts have led to major achievements, but they have been only partly successful.

The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century. Unless humanity is suicidal (which, granted, is a possibility), we will solve the problem of climate change. Yes, the problem is enormous, but we have both the knowledge and the resources to do this and require only the will.

The worldwide extinction of species and natural ecosystems, however, is not reversible. Once species are gone, they’re gone forever. Even if the climate is stabilized, the extinction of species will remove Earth’s foundational, billion-year-old environmental support system. A growing number of researchers, myself included, believe that the only way to reverse the extinction crisis is through a conservation moonshot: We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it.

The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible. This conservation goal did not come out of the blue. Its conception, called the Half-Earth Project, is an initiative led by a group of biodiversity and conservation experts (I serve as one of the project’s lead scientists). It builds on the theory of island biogeography, which I developed with the mathematician Robert MacArthur in the 1960s.

Island biogeography takes into account the size of an island and its distance from the nearest island or mainland ecosystem to predict the number of species living there; the more isolated an ecosystem, the fewer species it supports. After much experimentation and a growing understanding of how this theory works, it is being applied to the planning of conservation areas.

So how do we know which places require protection under the definition of Half-Earth? In general, three overlapping criteria have been suggested by scientists. They are, first, areas judged best in number and rareness of species by experienced field biologists; second, “hot spots,” localities known to support a large number of species of a specific favored group such as birds and trees; and third, broad-brush areas delineated by geography and vegetation, called ecoregions.

All three approaches are valuable, but applying them in too much haste can lead to fatal error. They need an important underlying component to work — a more thorough record of all of Earth’s existing species. Making decisions about land protection without this fundamental knowledge would lead to irreversible mistakes.

The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can be only roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet.

Paleontologists estimate that before the global spread of humankind the average rate of species extinction was one species per million in each one- to 10-million-year interval. Human activity has driven up the average global rate of extinction to 100 to 1,000 times that baseline rate. What ensues is a tragedy upon a tragedy: Most species still alive will disappear without ever having been recorded. To minimize this catastrophe, we must focus on which areas on land and in the sea collectively harbor the most species.

Building on new technologies, and on the insight and expertise of organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives the environment, the Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species across the globe to identify the places where we can protect the highest number of species. By determining which blocks of land and sea we can string together for maximum effect, we have the opportunity to support the most biodiverse places in the world as well as the people who call these paradises home. With the biodiversity of our planet mapped carefully and soon, the bulk of Earth’s species, including humans, can be saved.

By necessity, global conservation areas will be chosen for what species they contain, but in a way that will be supported, and not just tolerated, by the people living within and around them. Property rights should not be abrogated. The cultures and economies of indigenous peoples, who are de facto the original conservationists, should be protected and supported. Community-based conservation areas and management systems such as the National Natural Landmarks Program, administered by the National Park Service, could serve as a model.

To effectively manage protected habitats, we must also learn more about all the species of our planet and their interactions within ecosystems. By accelerating the effort to discover, describe and conduct natural history studies for every one of the eight million species estimated to exist but still unknown to science, we can continue to add to and refine the Half-Earth Project map, providing effective guidance for conservation to achieve our goal.

The best-explored groups of organisms are the vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes), along with plants, especially trees and shrubs. Being conspicuous, they are what we familiarly call “wildlife.” A great majority of other species, however, are by far also the most abundant. I like to call them “the little things that run the world.” They teem everywhere, in great number and variety in and on all plants, throughout the soil at our feet and in the air around us. They are the protists, fungi, insects, crustaceans, spiders, pauropods, centipedes, mites, nematodes and legions of others whose scientific names are seldom heard by the bulk of humanity. In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of the other living world — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, priapulids, coral, loriciferans and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life.

Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They too are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.

With new information technology and rapid genome mapping now available to us, the discovery of Earth’s species can now be sped up exponentially. We can use satellite imagery, species distribution analysis and other novel tools to create a new understanding of what we must do to care for our planet. But there is another crucial aspect to this effort: It must be supported by more “boots on the ground,” a renaissance of species discovery and taxonomy led by field biologists.

Within one to three decades, candidate conservation areas can be selected with confidence by construction of biodiversity inventories that list all of the species within a given area. The expansion of this scientific activity will enable global conservation while adding immense amounts of knowledge in biology not achievable by any other means. By understanding our planet, we have the opportunity to save it.

As we focus on climate change, we must also act decisively to protect the living world while we still have time. It would be humanity’s ultimate achievement.

View article on the New York Times

Map of Life: Preserving biodiversity with data

About Map of Life Map of Life supports global biodiversity education, monitoring, research, and decision-making by integrating and analyzing global information about species distributions and dynamics. Using hosted cloud technology, Map of Life makes its data available to scholars, researchers, students, teachers, and conservationists.

Industries: Education, Non-profit Location: United States Products: App Engine, BigQuery, Cloud SQL, Cloud Storage, Compute Engine, Google Earth Engine

Map of Life supports biodiversity education, monitoring, research, and decision-making by using Google Cloud Platform products to collect, analyze, and visually represent global data

Stores over 600M records for 44K+ species

Google Cloud Platform Results Speeds up data analysis required for accurate assessments of endangered species Provides scientific evidence to support conservation efforts Scales on demand to support additions and updates to large data volumes Stores over 600M records for 44K+ species

The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex systems that inhabit it. But phenomena including climate change, pollution, unsustainable agriculture, and habitat destruction and degradation threaten the planet’s ecosystems and inhabitants. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that wildlife populations worldwide declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012.

To reverse such trends, scientists, conservationists, and governments need to know where and how to target efforts to help prevent extinction and preserve biodiversity. Yale University and the University of Florida (UF) partnered to tackle the challenge by collecting and analyzing global sources of data and making information available to help guide research, policy, and conservation.

“Google Cloud Platform offers all the tools we need for large-scale data management and analysis. Its integration with Google Earth Engine makes it ideal for data visualization.” —Walter Jetz, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University

Their solution, Map of Life, contains data about vertebrates, plants, and insects from international, national, and local sources, including BirdLife International, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Yale and UF chose Google Cloud Platform to support Map of Life’s data storage, analysis, and mapping because of its superior ability to scale, integrate, manage, mine, and display data.

“Google Cloud Platform offers all the tools we need for large-scale data management and analysis,” says Walter Jetz, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. “Its integration with Google Earth Engine and Google Maps make it ideal for data visualization.”

Mapping where species are at-risk

Map of Life currently draws from more than 600 million records worldwide that contain information about approximately 44,351 species of vertebrates, plants, and insects and more than 700,000 species names, stores the information in Google Cloud Storage. Its scalable, high-performance architecture also includes the Google App Engine platform-as-a-service (PaaS) to host application logic and feed information to various user interfaces via RESTful application program interfaces (APIs). Geolocation and spatial data can be analyzed and displayed through Google App Engine APIs that connect to the Google Earth Engine, and CARTO geolocation data cloud platforms. The Map of Life CARTO service runs on Google Compute Engine virtual machines to improve scalability of on-demand vector mapping and query needs.

Combining data from multiple sources allows Map of Life to estimate the distribution of and trends within at-risk species and make this information available to naturalists, conservation groups, natural resource managers, scientists, and interested amateurs. Anyone who visits the website or downloads the mobile app can view the information.

Google Compute Engine performs complex data analyses to predict which species are at risk. The science behind understanding biodiversity and identifying and predicting trends within species requires multiple analytic iterations, each of which accounts for corrections and new input from scientists. Google Compute Engine is particularly well suited for this because of how quickly it processes each iteration.

“Map of Life uses Google BigQuery to analyze massive data sets, quickly. We can perform a query on 600 million species occurrence records in less than a minute, helping scientists reach conclusions more quickly.” —Jeremy Malczyk, Lead Software Engineer, Map of Life

“Every day we’re gathering more data, including from remote sensors,” says Walter. “Using Google Cloud Platform and Google Earth Engine, we’re able to make more accurate predictions about at-risk species worldwide.”

Map of Life continually incorporates new data sets, including those from individual observers who submit observations about vertebrates, plants, and insects. The platform even integrates remote-sensing data from Google Earth Engine and uses Google BigQuery to analyze large sets of unstructured data.

“Map of Life uses Google BigQuery to analyze massive data sets, quickly,” says Jeremy Malczyk, Lead Software Engineer for Map of Life. “We can perform a query on 600 million species occurrence records in less than a minute, helping scientists reach conclusions more quickly.”

Global conservation powered by data More than 100,000 scientists and concerned citizens already use Map of Life for biodiversity research and discovery. Map of Life is also developing new tools and visualizations to support the specific needs of government agencies and conservation organizations to help support the development of environmental policy.

The Chicago Field Museum and Map of Life received a $300,000 MacArthur Foundation grant to support conservation efforts in South America. Map of Life is creating data visualization dashboards for park managers, who can use the biodiversity information to improve conservation strategies in protected areas across Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

“Humankind has historically had very little information about biodiversity with sufficient spatial detail at a global scale. Map of Life is setting out to change that,” adds Walter. “By combining in data and models we aim to help everyone from eco-tourists who can appreciate biodiversity wherever they travel, to resource managers who need to handle development in a sustainable way, and to governments who want to protect biodiversity.”

View article on Google Cloud Platform

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Latest Blog Posts

Map of Life supports the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation as science partner for the Half-Earth Project

Tuesday, October 24, 2017
The Half-Earth Project “The Half-Earth Project is founded on science, but at its heart is our transcendent moral obligation to all life.” - E.O. Wilson We are currently in a biodiversity crisis, with species going extinct at a rate 1000 times higher than the natural rate. Rather than passively documenting the decline of species, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation founded their ground-breaking initiative: The Half-Earth Project. Edward O. Wilson’s book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016), proposes this monumental idea to save half the earth for the rest of life. Through the establishments of partnerships and supporting research, leadership, and engagement, the project’s mission is to help prioritize the preservation of biodiversity on half of the earth’s land and sea. Mapping Core The key question is: What are the places to prioritize for this Half-Earth network? This is what the Half-Earth Project’s Mapping Core has set out to answer. Its mission is to assess the current state of global ... read more »

Updates to Map of Life infrastructure

Friday, September 22, 2017
Over the past year, we have been overhauling our database so that we can improve the performance of mol.org and thus providing you -our users- with a better experience. It is a real challenge to manage and visualize large volumes of data, and this change is part of our on-going effort to improve the efficiency of our website and spatial analyses. We have also developed some new features for the Global Biodiversity Mountain Assessment Mountain Portal 2.0. Here are some new features you can enjoy: Additional data, including more range maps, updated point occurrences, local inventories, and more. Faster map loading speeds, particularly on the species page. Descriptions and metrics for mountain regions. Language support for an additional 4 languages (Spanish, French, German, and Chinese) in the species and regions pages. Portuguese will be coming soon! The Datasets page is now live. New Map of Life Datasets page! In order to increase the loading speed of the species maps, some features are temporarily ... read more »

Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment Mountain Portal: a powerful new online tool developed by Map of Life for exploring mountain biodiversity

Sunday, December 11, 2016
The Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) teamed up with Map of Life (MOL) to launch a new web-portal for the visualization and exploration of biodiversity data for over 1000 mountain ranges defined worldwide. Global mountain inventory Mountains are hotspots of biodiversity and areas of high endemism that support one third of terrestrial species and numerous ecosystem services. Mountain ecosystems are therefore of prime importance not only for biodiversity, but for human well-being in general. Because of their geodiversity, mountain ecosystems have served as refuge for organisms during past climatic changes and are predicted to fulfill this role also under forthcoming changes. Yet, mountains are responding to increasing land use pressure and changes in climatic conditions, and collecting, consolidating, and standardizing biodiversity data in mountain regions is therefore important for improving our current understanding of biodiversity patterns and predicting future trends. In order to accurately ... read more »
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