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Predicting the impact of land-use change on biodiversity

01 September 2014

Species that live within a narrow range and have specialist habitat requirements are disproportionally affected by the conversion of land for human-dominated use. Using the PREDICTS model, scientists at UNEP-WCMC and the Natural History Museum, London are able to predict the consequences of land-use change on biodiversity.

As the human population continues to increase, demand for more agricultural land is one of the main drivers of habitat loss and degradation. This change in land use presents the greatest immediate threat to biodiversity and could lead to changes in the way our ecosystems function as well as species extinctions.

PREDICTS – Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity in Changing Terrestrial Systems – is a collaborative project that combines data from many different studies to identify how a range of human pressures impact on species and their habitats. In this latest study, biodiversity change under different scenarios of land-use change was predicted for nearly 4,000 topical and sub-tropical forest habitat dwelling taxa including invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds.

Forest-specialist species and species with narrow ranges are disproportionately lost from ecological communities when land is converted from natural to human-dominated habitats. In particular, birds are highly sensitive to urban land use and the number of bird species declines as human population density increases.

A number of species whose risk of extinction has not yet been assessed by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species were identified by the model as being most sensitive to land-use change. This shows that the PREDICTS model could be used to make an early estimate of the impact of habitat loss on species for which there is little information. The model may also identify species that are not yet listed as threatened but could be with further land-use change.

Overall, the transformation of habitats for human use is causing consistent reductions in species richness and changes in abundance in tropical and sub-tropical forests around the world. Predicting the biodiversity impacts of future changes will help inform future land-use decisions and provide information about groups of species that are poorly-studied.