Evolutionary Biogeography for Conservation

More than 150 years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, there are still gaps in knowledge about the processes by which species arise and how different environmental factors—and potential human action—contribute to the patterns where species are found, or their biogeography. An improved understanding of these processes is crucial in the face of ongoing and predicted environmental changes that threaten global biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation has historically focused on protecting hotspots of diversity as defined by patterns of species richness. But how can knowledge of evolutionary process inform conservation planning and the spatial prioritization of conservation actions? In other words, how can we conserve not only species, but also the processes that generate and maintain continued evolution?  

The CBC's Approach  

The CBC asks: How can we – the global community and local stewards of biodiversity – conserve not just species and ecosystems, but also the links and contexts that generate and maintain them? In this project, the CBC seeks to address this challenge through improved scientific understanding of the evolutionary processes that generate diversification, and in particular how they are influenced by the environment.

Two lemurs at Tsimbazaza Zoo in Madagascar

Black lemurs (Eulemur macaco) at the Tsimbazaza Zoo in Madagascar. © Chris Raxworthy


We use ecological niche models (ENMs – also called species distribution models or SDMs) to test hypotheses about the biogeographic history of organisms, and to predict future changes in their distributions in response to environmental changes, such as climate change. Our case studies include lemurs, reptiles and amphibians in Madagascar, doucs in Southeast Asia, and jaguars in South America.

Our results highlight how multiple types of speciation are occurring simultaneously, including both geographic (allopatric) and ecological (parapatric) speciation processes. Thus, conservation efforts should expand their targets to include features that facilitate these processes such as key geographic barriers and transitional ecotone environments. This work takes a crucial first step towards better understanding how evolutionary processes and the evolutionary ecology of species may respond to continued environmental change.

A summary overview of the accomplishments of the evolutionary biogeography project

Dr. Mary Blair, project leader, is also Affiliated Faculty at AMNH’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, where she teaches a course for Comparative Biology PhD students on “GIS and remote sensing for conservation and evolutionary biology” so that students can gain the skills to incorporate spatial modeling into their dissertation research.

CBC staff also organize the New York Regional Species Distribution Modeling discussion group, which brings together leading researchers from across the New York Metro area, including research scientists from industry and conservation organizations as well as professors, graduate students, and postdoctoral scientists from CUNY, SUNY Stony Brook, NYU, Columbia, Yale, UConn, NYBG, EcoHealth Alliance, WCS, Rutgers, Harvard, and Princeton (among others), to present research and new methods related to spatial modeling for biogeography and conservation.

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This work was partially supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)