2.6 Billion Years of Primate and Carnivore Evolutionary History at Risk

2/19/2002

Biodiversity Hotspots are Key to Saving Future Diversity of these Animal Groups

Washington, DC – Scientists have discovered that the greatest concentration of all primate and carnivore evolutionary history exists within those species found only in the 25 biodiversity hotspots. These species - whose combined evolutionary ages total 2.6 billion years - represent genetic lineages that are vital to the future diversity, evolution and survival of these animals according a collaborative study published by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at Conservation International and biologists from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville in the Feb. 19 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). With this discovery, biodiversity hotspots continue to demonstrate their importance because the extinction of these species due to the continued destruction of the natural ecosystems in these regions will disrupt and deplete genetic lineages which have taken millions of years to evolve. Approximately 55 percent of the world's primates and 22 percent of carnivores are found only within biodiversity hotspots and yet they represent seventy percent of the evolutionary history for the entire species. The combined evolutionary ages of these animals amount to 343 million more years of evolutionary history than a similar random sample taken from other portions of the earth. "If one of these species in a biodiversity hotspot goes extinct we not only lose that particular animal, but we also lose its contribution to the evolution and ultimately the survival of that species as a whole." said John L. Gittleman, University of Virginia evolutionary biologist and co-author. "You only see the incredible diversity of life that currently exists because previous species were able to develop and evolve over time."

As species disappear, the genetic base for the future evolution of new primates and carnivores also begins to shrink. Scientists liken this danger to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The importance of preserving biodiversity hotspots can be seen in the examples of two lemurs that are found only in Madagascar. The Weasel Lemur (Lepilemur Mustelinus) has an estimated evolution history of 18.6 million years and the Ruffed Lemur (Varecia Variegata) dates back an estimated 16.6 million years. By comparison, Homo sapiens evolutionary history dates back only 7.1 million years.

"We are facing double jeopardy. Not only are we in danger of losing species, but we are facing the loss of their legacy. These animals found in the biodiversity hotspots represent a huge repository of genetic diversity which is invaluable to the advancement of scientific research and the preservation of future biodiversity," said Gustavo Fonseca, CABS Executive Director.

The 25 biodiversity hotspots cover just 1.4 percent of the Earth's land surface, yet claim more than 60 percent of total terrestrial biodiversity. Under extreme threat, many hotspots have lost more than 90 percent of their original natural habitat.

"If the Louvre in Paris or the Pyramids were to be destroyed, there would be public outrage," said CI president Russell A. Mittermeier. "When a rainforest disappears, however, nobody expresses alarm. Yet, the biodiversity hotspots hold an equal amount of the Earth's treasures."

Conservation International recently announced an unprecedented global initiative to stop species extinctions in biodiversity hotspots and to protect large areas of major tropical wilderness areas. To launch this effort, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is providing CI with the largest gift ever given to a private conservation group, with a series of grants totaling up to $261 million over 10 years. With an alliance of conservation partners, CI aims to secure $1.5 billion in private investments over the next 10 years, and leverage another $4.5 billion from the public sector.

A blueprint for the initiative was developed during the "Defying Nature's End" conference organized by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at CI, and co-chaired by Gordon Moore and Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson at the California Institute of Technology in August 2000. The initiative will create strong global alliances, bolster scientific field research and offer new economic options to protect biodiversity.

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The Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, (CABS) based at Conservation International, strengthens the ability of CI and other institutions to accurately identify and quickly respond to emerging threats to Earth's biological diversity. CABS brings together leading experts in science and technology to collect and interpret data about biodiversity, to develop strategic plans for conservation and to forge key partnerships in all sectors toward conservation goals. Read more about CABS at www.biodiversityscience.org.

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