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New endangered list for ecosystems modeled after ‘Red list’ for species

The IUCN has unveiled the first iteration of its new Red List of Ecosystems, a ranking of habitats worldwide.

The Red List of Ecosystems is modeled after the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, which now serves as the global standard for assessing the extinction risk of plants and animals. Like the species ranking system, the ecosystem list will identify whether an ecosystem is vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. The list applies across terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, potentially helping governments prioritize conservation efforts, according to David Keith, the lead author of the PLoS ONE study that lays out the criteria for initiative.

“By knowing which ecosystems are tracking well and which ones are in trouble, governments, industries and local communities will be well-positioned to make smart investment decisions for sustainable environmental management,” Keith said via a press release.

Venezuela’s unusual tepui ecosystem was assessed in the study

The criteria for the list include four “symptoms” of ecosystem risk: “A) rates of decline in ecosystem distribution; B) restricted distributions with continuing declines or threats; C) rates of environmental (abiotic) degradation; and D) rates of disruption to biotic processes.” A fifth criterion is the risk of ecosystem collapse.

The paper included a collection of 20 “case study” ecosystems. The most endangered of these is the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which has suffered from severe shrinkage and salinization, leading to species extinction and invasion by non-native species.

Sample ecosystems

Aral Sea Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan freshwater critically endangered
Raised bogs Germany freshwater critically endangered
Gonakier forests of the Senegal River floodplain Senegal freshwater critically endangered
Cape Sand Flats Fynbos South Africa terrestrial critically endangered
Coorong lagoons Australia freshwater/marine critically endangered
Karst rising springs Southern Australia freshwater critically endangered
Coastal sandstone upland swamps Australia freshwater endangered/critically endangered
Swamps, marshes and lakes in the Murray-Darling Basin Australia freshwater endangered/critically endangered
Giant kelp forests Alaska marine endangered/critically endangered
Caribbean coral reefs Caribbean marine endangered/critically endangered
Seagrass meadows Southern Australia marine endangered-critically endangered
German tamarisk pioneer vegetation Europe freshwater endangered
Coolibah-Black Box woodland Australia freshwater/terrestrial endangered
Tapia forest Madagascar terrestrial endangered
Semi-evergreen vine thicket Australia terrestrial endangered
Great Lakes Alvars United States and Canada terrestrial vulnerable/endangered
Reed beds Europe freshwater vulnerable
Floodplain ecosystem of river red gum and black box Southeastern Australia freshwater vulnerable
Tepui shrubland Venezuela terrestrial least concern
Granite gravel fields and sand plains New Zealand terrestrial least concern

Citation: Keith DA, Rodríguez JP, Rodríguez-Clark KM, Nicholson E, Aapala K, et al. (2013) Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62111. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062111

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