With species now vanishing at 1,000 times the rate they did before humans became the big threat to life on Earth, scientists and philosophers from around the world met this month at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., to discuss the best way to combat what amounts to the sixth great extinction event in the planet’s history.
Although uncomfortable with the notion that conserving endangered species now amounts to an exercise in “triage,” most of those at the conference agreed that some priorities are required, given all the time, energy and money being directed toward conservation. The issue now is how to set those priorities.
To that end, Arne Mooers, a biologist at Simon Fraser University, presented a paper called “Are some species more equal than others?” The title was purposely Orwellian because Prof. Mooers argues that evolutionary isolation – as determined by a measure called phylogenetic diversity – may be the best way to assess the value of a species. The Globe and Mail talked to him about why.
Is applying phylogenetic diversity to conservation a new idea?
Not entirely. In 1982, the celebrated biologist E.O. Wilson stated that the aim of conservation should be to preserve all the information contained in all the DNA of all species currently alive on Earth. But the notion now is a practical one – to preserve those species that carry the most information on evolutionary history in their DNA.
Written By: Leslie Anthony
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