March 11 (UPI) -- Biologists and data scientists have developed a plan for tracking the numbers and locations of the planet's millions of plant and animal species -- a global biodiversity census of sorts.
The new bio-tracking plan -- published this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution -- features new strategies for collecting, organizing and translating massive amounts of biodiversity data for decision-makers, including policy-makers and wildlife managers.
"There are so many gaps in our knowledge of biodiversity where we don't have the capacity to properly make decisions because of data limitations," Robert Guralnick, associate curator of biodiversity informatics at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a news release.
"This paper really throws the gauntlet down in terms of what we can do -- not in 10 or 20 years, but what we can begin to do today to deliver data at a national and international level to decision-makers who can help stem the loss of wildlife."
Counting each plant and animal specimen one-by-one would be nearly impossible. To more effectively track global biodiversity data and monitor the health of plant and animals species, scientists at GEO BON identified six "vital signs" to describe the well-being of different plant and animals populations.
GEO BON, the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network, is dedicated to aggregating the findings of biodiversity observation efforts from around the world.
"Humans are complex beings with lots of parts and processes. You can't just measure your blood pressure and say you're healthy," said Guralnick, co-chair of GEO BON's data task force. "That's also how the planet works. We need to measure lots of things. This will help us generate health stats for the planet that encompass the complexity of its systems."
Guralnick's research team designed a model to measure one of the six vital signs -- "species populations" -- in 3D. Scientists dubbed the simulation the "hypercube."
"The cube helps us keep everything centralized in a common framework," Guralnick said. "You can 'roll' the cube to look at spatial patterns of where plants and animals are found or 'roll' it to reveal species' change through time. You need all of that information in one framework to be able to generate the kind of full-scale data resources we need for decision-making."
To work effectively, the hypercube and other yet-developed biodiversity statistical models need more data, more statistics -- migratory bird data from NASA's remote-sensing satellites, for example.
According to the authors of the new paper, museum records are essential to the task of tracking global biodiversity. Digitalization efforts are needed to helps scientists use museum records for big-data analysis.
One such effort is iDigBio, a National Science Foundation-funded project based at the University of Florida. Scientists at iDigBio are working to digitize the biological collections of hundreds of U.S. institutions.
"Museums have a critical role to play in helping us understand and map the distribution of organisms," Guralnick said. "Museum records contain a species name, place and time, but they have all this other information that makes them important and useful -- genes, genomes, physical characteristics and so forth. Every piece of information we bring to the table needs to be used properly. That's what this paper is about."
According to researchers, efforts to synchronize biodiversity datasets, whether museum records or satellite surveys, will allow more accurate vital signs measurements, which can be used to inform conservation priorities and wildlife management decisions.
"Our goal is to be able to use these data to produce a kind of report card on biodiversity that policymakers can use to discern how we're doing and whether we're meeting targets for conserving wildlife and sustaining human health and well-being," Guralnick said.