Small-scale wildlife surveys can reveal the health of entire ecosystems, according to new research
The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed the importance of 'interactions' between species – birds feeding on plants, insects pollinating flowers and so on.
Monitoring wildlife is one of the most costly and problematic aspects of conservation, and often relies on long-term observations in individual species. However, the results of the study show that a small snapshot of interactions is a reliable indicator of the health of an entire community of species.
The research looked at whether these communities are 'persistent' or not – meaning whether all species are fine or if any are declining to extinction.
When environmental conditions change, interactions between species often change too, providing an early indicator of wider problems. As such, the study's method can identify patterns more quickly than some traditional conservation monitoring, which is vital given the rapid changes being caused by human activity.
The research was carried out by the University of Exeter, McGill University, the University of Toronto, Princeton University and MIT.
"All communities of plants and animals are supported by an underlying network of interactions between species," said Dr Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury, from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall.
"Our study – which combines theory, statistics and real-world data – shows that examining a few of these interactions can provide 'big picture' conclusions about ecosystem health. This information is essential for policymakers, scientists and societies, as we try to tackle the global biodiversity crisis."
Fortin, M-J, Gonzalez, A, Kaiser-Bunbury, C N, Saavedra, S, Simmons, B I, & Song, S. 2023. Rapid monitoring of ecological persistence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2211288120