Fossils are informing the future of conservation

"Places that are tropical and stable, regions that have similar climate year-round, will likely be impacted the most by invasive species," said researcher Alycia Stigall.

By Brooks Hays
Fossils are informing the future of conservation
The fossil record suggests specialist species are most vulnerable to dramatic ecological shifts, whether geologic and climatic in nature. Photo by Arjen de Ruiter/Shutterstock

BOULDER, Colo., Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Which species are worth saving? Which species will survive global warming? Which will thrive?

Conservationists are facing hard questions and tough decisions as they anticipate a warming climate. Some scientists are looking to the fossil record for help.


Recently, a team of paleontologists led by Alycia Stigall set out to mine the fossil record for clues as to the future challenges of conservation. Specifically, researchers wanted to know which species are most vulnerable to environmental shifts. To find out, scientists studied the effects of significant climatic and geologic shifts on biodiversity throughout evolutionary history.

Their analysis showed ecological changes mostly benefit generalist species, while hurting specialists.

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Generalists are most successful among large landmasses, where they can spread out across a variety of environs and take advantage of an array of natural resources. Specialists thrive within regions with highly differentiated habitats. Through geologic time, the division of landmasses into smaller islands promoted specialization, while the adjoining of islands into larger landmasses benefited generalists.

Because specialists occupy small ecological niches, competing for slices of a relatively small resource pie, their presence corresponds with more rapid speciation and greater biodiversity.


The fossil record suggests shifts enabling the territorial expansion of generalists coincided with a reduction in speciation and biodiversity. Given the opportunity, generalists invade the niches of specialists and diminish biodiversity.

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Naturally, generalists make for the most destructive invasive species. Unfortunately, ecologists expect global warming to encourage the spread of invasive species.

The new findings -- recently presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America -- suggest specialist species will need the most help surviving climate change.

"Places that are tropical and stable, regions that have similar climate year-round, will likely be impacted the most by invasive species," Stigall explained in a news release. "Data sets for modern species are usually limited in terms of the number of species and years available when talking about biodiversity, so hopefully we can use the fossil record to expand our knowledge and use the past to make informed decisions about the future."

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