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Support in Area Prioritization Using Phylogenetic Information

Daniel Rafael Miranda-Esquivel

Abstract Human activities have accelerated the level of global biodiversity loss. As we cannot preserve all species and areas, we must prioritize what to protect. Therefore, one of the most urgent goals and crucial tasks in conservation biology is to prioritize areas. We could start by calculating ecological measures as richness or endemicity, but they do not reflect the evolutionary diversity and distinctness of the species in a given area. The conservation of biodiversity must be linked to the understanding of the history of the taxa and the areas, and phylogeny give us the core for such understanding. In such phylogenetic context, evolutionary distinctiveness (ED) is a feasible way for defining a ranking of areas that takes into account the evolutionary history of each taxon that inhabits the area. As our knowledge of the distribution or the phylogeny might be incomplete, I introduce Jack-knife resampling in evolutionary distinctiveness prioritization analysis, as a way to evaluate the support of the ranking of the areas to modifications in the data used. In this way, some questions could be evaluated quantitatively as we could measure the confidence of the results, since deleting at random part of the information (phylogenies and/or distributions), would help to quantify the persistence of a given area in the ranking.

Keywords Phylogenetic conservation • Taxonomic distinctiveness • Jack-knife

Conservation Planning

The biodiversity is at risk, therefore decisions must be made in order to tackle the biodiversity crisis. In the process of conservation planning, one or maybe the most important task is to evaluate the quality and importance of a given area. To fulfill this task there are many metrics, from species richness to endemicity, but these two values do not consider the evolutionary uniqueness of a species (Purvis and Hector 2000). Any useful metric must include the evolutionary value of the species (Rolland et al. 2012), where the most important and therefore the selected area is the one that harbors the highest biodiversity, but this does not mean the highest number of species but the highest number of unique species or evolutionary fronts.

There are many approaches in the context of phylogenetic diversity and conservation, from community ecology to taxon or area conservation. Given this broad spectrum, the questions are different and vary a lot. In the context of community ecology and phylogeny, the approach is to evaluate whether there is structure in the community given the phylogeny (Cavender-Bares et al. 2009), and therefore the null model approach is used to present the null hypothesis. The species by area matrix is shuffled (see: Gotelli and Graves 1996), or the species or area labels are shuffled. Here the “support” is closer to the traditional confidence limits and error evaluation.

To evaluate the diversity of an area using phylogenies as a general frame, two main perspectives could be used, evolutionary distinctiveness (ED) or phylogenetic diversity (PD). Evolutionary distinctiveness refers to species-specific measures developed to assign scores to the species and therefore the areas they inhabit (VaneWright et al. 1991). The measures are topology-based indices, calculated as “the sum of basic taxic weights, Q, and the sum of standardised taxic weights, W.” (Schweiger et al. 2008), and therefore are also known as Taxonomic distinctiveness indices. Phylogenetic diversity (PD) is a distance-based index using minimum spanning path of the subset in the tree (Faith 1992). Redding et al. (2008) identified some of the major differences between ED and PD. PD is effective only if all the species within the optimal subset are protected, otherwise other optimal subsets are possible; unlike ED, PD is not species-specific and thus does not offer priority species rankings, which are important to species conservation approaches as the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Furthermore, topologies are more stable than branch lengths. Increasing the number of characters or changing the set of characters seldom leads to entire shifts in the relationships among species, whereas branch lengths change considerably from one set of characters to another and permit only to state about the evolution of the data set that generated the topology and the branch lengths (Brown et al. 2010).

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