Dr. Jean-Philippe Lessard, McGill University – Mapping Biodiversity

Feb 21, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jean-Philippe Lessard of McGill University explains how modern techniques are being used to refine an iconic map of the world’s biodiversity.

Jean-Philippe Lessard is an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science at McGill University. His research seeks to improve the understanding of how ecological and evolutionary forces interact to produce and maintain biological diversity. He recently produced an update to Alfred Russel Wallace’s map of global biodiversity. Lessard earned his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee.

About Dr. Lessard

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Dr. Jean-Philippe Lessard – Mapping Biodiversity

One of the great quests of the natural sciences is to understand why particular species of animals and plants are found in some places, but not others, and why some regions harbor hundreds of species found almost nowhere else on Earth.

Back in 1876, a well-traveled British naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace published a map depicting the distribution of biological diversity on Earth.  Wallace is best known as the co-discoverer, along with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution through natural selection. But he was also the first to map out the geographical distribution of animal species on earth.  His map divided the world into six zoogeographic regions. More than a century later, Wallace’s map still provides the baseline for much of the research in ecological, evolutionary and conservation sciences.

Today, we have access to massive amounts of DNA-based information on evolutionary relationships among species of animals. Using that information, along with data on the geographic distribution of animal species, a team of 15 international scientists recently updated Wallace’s seminal map.

A modern map of the vertebrate world. Researchers have combined information on the distribution and evolutionary relationships of over 20,000 species of amphibians, birds and mammals to identify 11 major global realms. The colours of the realms reflect the uniqueness of the animals found within them. Realms with similar colors contain very similar species and those with different colors contain very different species
Credit Journal Science / AAAS

Our map divides the world into 11 zoogeographic regions.  We found that communities of animals in some parts of the world are more distinctive than previously portrayed. This is particularly so in Central America, in China and Japan, and in a region including Papua-New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.

Our DNA-based approach also enabled us to identify which regions are the most “evolutionarily unique” – in other words, they harbor entire families of animals found in few, if any, other places. These unique regions are most prominent in the Southern Hemisphere, notably Australia, Madagascar and parts of South America.  If species are lost in these places, we risk losing large chunks of the tree of life, which may represent millions of years of our planet's natural history.

We hope our new map will prove to be a valuable tool for preserving biodiversity.