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Ecosystems classified for the first time across the entire planet

A research team led by UNSW Sydney, in collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations, has developed a way to classify the world’s ecosystems. This development aids ecosystem typology, a relatively new approach to conservation.

“For the first time, we have a common platform that identifies, defines and describes the full suite of the whole planet’s ecosystems,” said Professor David Keith, who led the team with Richard Kingsford and Emily Nicholson.

“It may seem rather odd that we haven’t had this before, but historically scientists have forged advances by working somewhat separately in marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. This is the first time that all of this detailed knowledge has been brought together into a single framework taking advantage of common theory across the disciplines.”

The experts believe this research will aid conservation policy since it offers a clearer picture. “It’s very hard to see the big picture on a jigsaw puzzle until you have all the pieces in place – and that’s what we now have. We have a much more substantial foundation to move ahead with a new era of ecosystem conservation and management policy,” said Professor Kingsford.

“Efforts on biodiversity conservation have largely centered at the species level, because it’s seen to be more tangible,” explained Professor Keith. “But a broader focus on both ecosystems and species is more likely to succeed in conserving all plants and animals, as well as the essential services that nature provides people.”

Professor Keith noted that by using global ecosystem typology, conservationists are more likely to consider lesser-studied ecosystems. “We don’t think often about what’s in the deep oceans, for example. There’s a tremendous variety of life down there and it’s organised into a number of different ecosystems. And those ecosystems are beginning to feel the impact of human expansion.”

Future analyses will focus on mapping and monitoring the world’s ecosystems. “Although many of the world’s 110 ecosystem types are already served with high quality maps updatable with satellite technology, the data for some other types is still rudimentary,” said Professor Keith.

“We can’t plan effectively where to protect ecosystems or how to manage them sustainably unless we have reliable maps for the full range of ecosystem types, and integrate them into decision-making and monitoring systems.”

This study is published in the journal Nature.

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By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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