Biologists recording populations could be missing species

By Joshua Rapp Learn

A black grouse in Finland. ©Francesco Veronesi

The methods biologists currently use to examine biodiversity could need some tinkering, according to new research.

When there’s an absence of recent biodiversity from an area, often researchers assume a species is no longer found there, according to Phil McGowan, a senior lecturer in biodiversity and conservation at Newcastle University and an author of a recent study published in Biology Letters. “But there could be a number of other possible reasons for this lack of data,” McGowan said in a release.

“It could be that its habitat is inaccessible — either geographically or due to human activity such as ongoing conflict — or perhaps it’s simply a case that no one has been looking for it.”

As a result, the study authors say that wildlife researchers need to change the way they record sightings or the lack thereof.

The study used a database of more than 150,000 bird sightings of European and Asian galliformes, which include quails, pheasants and grouse, across the world from 1727 to 2008. They found that post-1980, data on the birds was lacking at 40 percent of the locations in which they had previously been found.

“One scenario is that populations have been lost from these areas, probably due to hunting or habitat loss. The other scenario is that the species are still locally present but that nobody has been to look for them,” said Elizabeth Boakes, the study’s lead author and a teaching fellow at University College London, in a release.

“Our study shows that which scenario you choose to believe makes a huge difference to measures used in conservation priority-setting such as species richness and geographic range. It’s important that we make the right call and that means a big shake up in the way we currently monitor biodiversity.”

The authors say that the study shows that researchers need to record what species they don’t see as well as what they do see while recording sightings.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

Read more of Joshua's articles.