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Friday, December 4, 2020
Ian Cubitts
Ian Cubitts

Model predicts at-risk species

New research from the Australian National University (ANU) could be used as an early warning signal to help protect plants and animals from extinction.

Co-author, PhD candidate Alexander Skeels, said the model could allow scientists to predict which currently thriving species may have biological features that could lead them to becoming threatened in the future.

“This work could help target preventative conservation efforts, allowing managers to step in before a species declines towards extinction,” Mr Skeels said.

Using a group of Australian plants, Hakea, the researchers developed a model to identify features common to threatened species. 

“We focused on Hakea because it is one of Australia’s most diverse genera of plants, with many species found in Southwest Australia – an area that’s now lost over 70% of its natural habitat due to human land use,” Mr Skeels said.

“So Hakea may be particularly vulnerable in the future. But our method can be applied to many other groups of organisms worldwide.” 

The team found a couple of key traits that make species of Hakea more likely to join the threatened species list.

“We found species which are evolutionarily ‘distinct’ – or have few close relatives and have been evolving independently for some time – are more at risk,” Mr Skeels said. 

“The reasons for this are unclear, but one possibility is that some of their close relatives may’ve already become extinct in the past, so that lineage had features which made them vulnerable to extinction. 

“In these cases, the isolated species are a kind of last person standing of an evolutionary lineage with high rates of historical extinction.”  

Plant species with short flowering periods are also more likely to face extinction in the future.  

“Species that flower for brief periods only have a small window for pollination to happen,” Mr Skeels said.

“Any factors that make pollination less reliable, like a rapidly changing climate affecting the activity of pollinating insects, will impact these species more than those with a longer flowing period. This can in turn make it hard for the species to maintain large populations, which will increase the risk of it becoming extinct.” 

The research has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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