URI, Nature Conservancy develop tool to predict sites with greatest biodiversity in 2100

Maps to help conservation groups identify lands to protect

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 26, 2013 – Scientists from the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy have developed a series of tools that identify sites in the state that are likely to contain the greatest biodiversity in the next century.

“We’ve created a set of maps that identify the most ecologically diverse and resilient areas of the state to guide our investment in conservation and management, to make sure we look after those places in the face of climate change,” said John Torgan, the Conservancy’s director of ocean and coastal conservation.

“We’re trying to get beyond the doom and gloom of climate change and figure out how to move forward,” added URI Professor Peter August. “This is something positive and constructive and scientifically sound that we can do about climate change. If protecting many species of plants and animals is important to you, then we have a future-looking set of guidelines to accomplish that.”

The scientists, led by The Nature Conservancy’s Kevin Ruddock, divided the state into “ecological land units” – areas on the landscape that have similar environmental characteristics. Those locations with a great variety of ecological land units will likely have a higher number of species living there and can provide opportunities for those species to move around and thrive.

“Those sites that have exceptionally high variety in their ecological land units are great targets for land protection should the opportunity arise,” said August.

River corridors, for example the convergence of the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers, rank high in the diversity of their ecological land units. So does the north end of Block Island, the Big River Management Area in West Greenwich, the area north of Second Beach in Middletown, the area east of Nanaquaket Pond in Tiverton, and the Durfee Hill Management Area and Bowdish Lake area of Glocester, among others.

“We don’t know which species will be able to adapt to the changing climate and still be here a century from now, but we can still make predictions about places that will have a lot of diversity,” said Torgan. “A place that’s diverse now will be diverse in the future, even without knowing what those species are going to be.”

Many conservation organizations are already beginning to use the new tools when making decisions about properties to protect, including the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Richmond Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy.

“We’ve incorporated ecological land units into the maps that guide us in prioritizing conservation efforts,” said Torgan. “It’s one of a number of factors we use to make decisions, another tool in the tool box.”

The next step for the scientists is to make the tools available to municipalities and local land trusts as they plan how to respond to climate change.

A scientific paper examining the value of using ecological land units as a means of identifying sites containing high biodiversity was published last week in PLoS One. The paper is entitled “Conservation in the Context of Climate Change: Practical Guidelines for Land Protection at Local Scales.”