Models are crucial tools that allow scientists to estimate the biological diversity of particular habitats, regions, countries and even continents, and to assess how this might be changing over time.
Using models, researchers can begin to understand whether efforts to conserve the natural world are succeeding.
However, most models are tested against different sets of criteria, making it difficult to compare them with one another and be confident in any given model. Generally, models are limited to estimating the biodiversity of an area two orders of magnitude larger than that sampled – or smaller – the equivalent of estimating the number of species in an area of 100m2 from a 1m2 sample.
A new project led by the University of Leeds challenged the global research community to test the accuracy of their modelling techniques by applying them all to the same dataset - the 1999 Great Britain Countryside Survey.
Researchers were asked to make an estimate for the number of plant species present across Britain, based on small samples from the Great Britain Countryside Survey. Their predictions from their models were then tested against data from the Biological Records Centre – the national database of British plant species. This provided the 'true' species-area relationship for British plants, enabling the research team to determine the best modelling technique.
This task required estimating the biodiversity of an area five orders of magnitude larger than the total area sampled - equivalent to estimating the species richness of the land plants across the entire globe based on samples that cover only 3,000 km2.
“This mismatch between the scales of our policies and of our data creates serious challenges, especially when assessing biodiversity change.”
More than a dozen methods belonging to five conceptual groups were tested and the findings published in the paper ‘Upscaling biodiversity: estimating the species-area relationship from small samples’, in Ecological Monographs. Entries came from researchers working in countries including Canada, Czech Republic, South Africa, Taiwan and the USA.
The single best method for estimating the species-area relationship was proposed by Professor Cang Hui from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, based on his concept of species’ occupancy ranking, published for the first time in this paper.
Other models performed less well; while there are around 2,300 plant species in Britain, some models' up-scaled species richness estimates were far off the mark, ranging from 62 to 11,593.
Professor Kunin, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, says while there remains substantial room for improvement in upscaling methods, the results suggest that several existing methods have the potential for practical application to estimate species richness at coarse spatial scales.
“We have shown that mathematical modelling of biodiversity upscaling has come of age. These methods will greatly facilitate biodiversity estimation in poorly-studied taxa and regions, and the monitoring of biodiversity change at multiple spatial scales,” he concludes.
Professor Bill Kunin (University of Leeds) and Professor Cang Hui (Stellenbosch University), who proposed the best method for estimating the species-area relationship, are both available for interview. Please contact Simon Moore in the University of Leeds press office on +44 (0)113 34 34031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica Kwok and Ronaldo Ichiyama, International Spinal Research Trust (Feb 2018), £94,450
Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
Sarah Calaghan, Ed White, John Colyer, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2018), £128,308
Christine Foyer and Alison Baker, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £71,158
Alison Baker, Yun Yung Gong and Lindsay Stringer and ICRISAT India, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £27,000
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000