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Remote areas are not always safe havens

Experts at the University of Helsinki warn that remote areas are not safe havens for biodiversity. In fact, the researchers have found strong evidence to suggest that remote localities are often areas of critical vulnerability.

“To truly understand how global change is affecting natural communities and to identify effective strategies to mitigate the ongoing dramatic biodiversity loss, it is fundamental to account for the overarching complexity emerging from biotic interactions,” said Professor Giovanni Strona. “As we show in our new research, doing this might reveal important counterintuitive mechanisms.”

The team set out to investigate whether there is a link between remote areas and species vulnerability. If there is an increased risk of species loss in remote areas, this calls into question their reliability as biodiversity strongholds,  according to the researchers.

“We focused on one of the most biologically diverse and socio-economically significant ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs, which – despite international attention and global protection programs, continue to deteriorate under the influence of local human impacts (such as physical destruction and pollution) and the increasing effects of climate change (such as coral bleaching),” explained the study authors.

“By assessing the local dependency of fish assemblages on corals across the world’s oceans, we show that the increase in the frequency and strength of fish-coral associations with distance from human settlements, combined with the global reach of coral bleaching, obliterate the benefits of remoteness on reef fish local extinction risk.”

In particular, the study showed that coral loss could detrimentally affect an average of around 40 percent of fish species in each coral reef area. 

The researchers also found that the dependency between fish and corals becomes stronger in remote areas, the further away the fish are from humans. This indicates that fish communities on remote reefs are the most vulnerable to the impacts of coral mortality.

The researchers noted that with reef fish providing protein to half a billion people worldwide, the results have profound societal implications. “Remote coral reefs won’t be able to compensate for the losses of coral and fish species directly impacted by human activities, threatening the livelihoods of millions.”

“Also, our study reveals an essential macroecological and eco-evolutionary mechanism that might dramatically amplify risks from global change in natural systems.”

“The risk patterns observed for reef fish communities suggest that our already disconcerting projections about biosphere fragility might be overly optimistic. Moreover, the results of our study temper any hopes that, by protecting wilderness areas, we safeguard biodiversity vaults that can withstand the past and ongoing environmental destruction and changes brought by the Anthropocene.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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