Critically endangered and evolutionarily distinct

Dr. Sam Turvey and the Yangtze finless porpoise, now critically endangered and one of the species Dr. Turvey is working to protect.

Dr. Sam Turvey and the Yangtze finless porpoise, now critically endangered and one of the species Dr. Turvey is working to protect.

17 December 2014

The latest estimates suggest 25% of mammals are vulnerable or endangered. Some of these are evolutionarily distinct, being the only representatives of branches on the Tree of Life. This makes them incredibly important as these species represent disproportionate amounts of biodiversity; no other species fill their particular function in the environment. For some species including the Yangtze River dolphin  it seems it’s already too late, but Sam Turvey (Royal Society Fellow at the Zoological Society of London), who visited IBERS to talk about his work, is focusing on preventing further extinctions of these important species.

Dr. Turvey’s research is focused on evidence-based conservation to inform policy and management plans. Many of these species are very rare or difficult to find, making it extremely difficult to get data on their current population status or work out which habitats are important to protect using normal scientific data collection methods.

He said: “We don’t know how to prevent extinction for many species as it’s difficult to get data on status or threats. This is the case especially in Asia where I’ve been carrying out most of my work. It’s therefore imperative to stress how far alternative novel datasets contribute to conservation toolkit and directly help conservation management and contribute to preventing imminent loss of biodiversity.”

Dr Turvey’s seminar gave some insight into using local ecological knowledge, a new method he is using to address these problems. Can simply asking a group of people when and where the see (or last saw) a species give information on their decline? He showed that local ecological knowledge can challenge the “scientific” wisdom about species range; for example, it was thought that the Yangtze River dolphin was restricted to a few fragmented areas of the Yangtze, whereas local ecological knowledge indicates it was probably found throughout the river system shortly before its extinction.

He also uses fossil records to understand factors that drove extinction in species in the past and how this can help conservation in the present (featured in the TV series "Secrets of Bones" on BBC4 earlier this year).

Dr. Turvey is a long-time collaborator with Dr. Claire Risley in IBERS, and was excited to visit and chat about his work with the staff and students.