How much do we know about the life history of the world's vertebrates? Dr. Dalia Conde from Species360 has an answer

We are currently experiencing an exciting moment in conservation, according to Dr. Dalia Conde, Director of Science at Species360 and Associate Professor of the University of Southern Denmark. In her seminar lecture entitled “Mapping Information Gaps: Towards an Index of Knowledge for Every Vertebrate Species”, Dr. Conde described the unique opportunity that we currently have to capitalize on machine learning technology and big data tools to create an interconnected and standardized knowledge system on the life history of the world’s biodiversity.

Dr. Conde explained how, in her view, biodiversity data resembles the universe: it is ever expanding and becoming infinite thanks to mixed forms of data collection, from field based research and captive population studies, to citizen science, or genome coding. However, all the effort that we are putting into producing large quantities of data on species life histories can become futile if we are unable to transform basic data into interconnected knowledge that can be used for conservation decision making.

Several biodiversity databases, including YouTHERIA, AnAge, COMADRE (hosted with us at the Department of Zoology @ Oxford), EURING, to name a few, have already begun the process of organizing and curating biodiversity data so that it can be more accessible to researchers and decision makers. Species360 is now working to standardize information across databases, and to generate and index of basic demographic knowledge of each of the world’s vertebrates, called DISKo. This index gives each species a score according to how much knowledge is available about its fertility and mortality. DISKo has already been implemented for a sample of species, revealing that only 1.3% of vertebrate species are well understood in terms of their demography. Even more surprising is the fact that 78% of the information behind that percentage does not contain details about its origins, but most likely derives from captive populations. Dr. Conde argues that if we include the information collected by zoos into DISKo, the percentage of vertebrate species that are well understood increases to 15%, making the information from zoos a very valuable asset for our knowledge about biodiversity.

DISKo could have wide ranging applications for conservation planning. For example, it can provide critical information for IUCN Red List Assessments, influencing CITES listings to improve the protection of endangered species. Similarly, DISKo could become a powerful tool to understand the demographic differences among captive and wild populations, which could lead to improvements in the management and welfare of species.

Dr. Conde ended her presentation on a positive note, saying that establishing the institutional partnerships needed to standardize species life history data under a single index has not been a problem because increasingly, people appreciate the importance of interconnected knowledge to conserve biodiversity. Her vision is that Species360 and DISKo will provide a platform to enable more collaborations in the future, catalysing action to address species extinctions.  

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Melissa Arias is a DPhil student in the ICCS team studying ways in which to improve the knowledge base on illegal wildlife trade in the Amazon. Follw her @melissaariasg.

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