Bearded and bespectacled, soft-voiced and unassuming, Norman Myers has the look of a village elder who imparts his wisdom without the faintest whiff of force. Yet, he has a knack for using his research on biodiversity to effectively frame globally impacting ideas such as “perverse subsidies” or “climate refugees”. Most importantly, he is responsible for coining the term “biodiversity hotspot” in 1988 to define regions of profound biological significance for preventing mass extinction. Currently, he is an Associate Researcher at the Biodiversity Institute of Oxford. He attributes his successes to his ability to communicate issues effectively, claiming: “Most scientists are content to find new answers to existing questions. I’ve made a career for raising new questions.” As a result of his life’s work, he was named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2007.
Norman Myers prioritized the concept of biodiversity hotspots after he had questioned the rate of extinction in the 1970s. He conducted research that adjusted the global estimate of the rate of extinction from one species per year to one species per day. By preserving biodiversity hotspots, we are able to leverage biodiversity preservation by targeting just a small percentage of the earth’s surface. The protection of biodiversity hotspots has become the single highest earning global conservation strategy attracting roughly $850 million in funds.
What is a biodiversity hotspot?
There are two criteria for a region of the earth to be declared a biodiversity hotspot.
- It is home to more than 1,500 endemic species of vascular plants
- It exhibits a loss of more than 70% loss of the original habitat
Translation: Biodiversity Hotspots are home to a huge number of native plants that can only grow in a particular region. At the same time, these regions are significantly threatened which means they represent areas at risk of losing the greatest amount of biodiversity. Since plants are an effective measure of the overall level of plant and animal biodiversity in a region, these areas are worthy of preservation.
Conservation International (CI) currently recognizes 34 distinct biodiversity hotspots around the globe, which account for just 2.3% of the earth’s land area. Each of these hotspots are shown and described on this useful printable map created by CI.
This video, prepared by the California Academy of Sciences, offers an excellent introduction to biodiversity hotspots:
When it was introduced, the concept of a hotspot provided a convenient way for institutions to propose conservation measures without merely highlighting individual species at risk of extinction in a piecemeal fashion as they had often done in the past. According to Scientific American, notable supporters of the concept include the MacArthur Foundation, which began to devote $15 million annually to hotspot conservation as of 1990. Conservation International likewise adopted the premise of biodiversity hotspot preservation at the core of its mission, as the lead institution responsible for defining global hotspots and allocating funds to preserve these areas. Other organizations using related strategies to raise funds include the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the World Wildlife Fund, Birdlife International, Plant Life International, and the Alliance for Zero Extinction.
By supporting these organizations, you’ll contribute to a global legacy of biodiversity preservation.
While the strategy was a boon to preservation funding starting in the 1990s, theories of climate change added a significant element of uncertainty into the viability of preserving biodiverse regions by focussing on a limited amount of space. This is because shifts in climate and the associated unpredictable climate patterns may increase the risk of biodiversity loss. Climate change also causes shifting ecological habitat regions globally, making reliable measurements of species loss increasingly difficult to furnish. However, this confluence of ecological issues merely highlights the increased urgency for biodiversity preservation.
The idea of Biodiversity Hotspots serves as an example for effective scientific communication. Norman Myer knows the power of words and has found ways to present his material so that everyday people can relate to it. I couldn’t agree more with him that “scientists should reach out to the general public.”