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Biological field stations deliver high return on investment for conservation, study finds

Tropical Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus occidentalis) photographed on the Jama Coaque Reserve. Photo by Euan Ferguson/ Third Millennium Alliance

  • Field stations provide many overlooked benefits and a significant return on investment for conservation, according to a new study authored by 173 conservation researchers.
  • Areas near field stations lost about 18% less forest than similar spots without stations, especially in Africa; stations also provide habitat for more than 1,200 species at risk of extinction.
  • Conservation benefits from field stations come at a median cost of around $637/km2 ($1,640/mi2), according to the study, far below the average budgets for protected areas globally.
  • Field stations are described as underfunded and underappreciated, and although much of the information and research used to inform global environmental policy and goals come from field stations, few explicitly mention them.

The term “field station” has an air of mystery, conjuring images of some tropical or icy outpost where scientists go to “do science.” And while it’s true that scientific research is the backbone of field stations, these places also provide many overlooked benefits and a huge return on investment for conservation, according to a new study authored by 173 conservation researchers.

“Field research stations are a cost-effective and multifaceted tool to addressing global conservation challenges and not just places where esoteric research is conducted, as is often the perception,” said Russ Mittermeier, chief conservation officer of Re:wild and senior author on the paper, published this week in Conservation Letters.

The study surveyed managers of 157 field stations in 56 countries where primates live (in Africa, Asia, Central and South America). Managers of field stations reported improved habitat quality, reduced hunting, and better law enforcement compared to areas without stations.

“If you’re near a field station, you have much healthier ecosystem and less degradation,” Timothy Eppley, lead author of the paper and chief conservation officer of Wildlife Madagascar, told Mongabay. “There’s practically no hunting in and around most field stations.”

Aerial view of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project (Max-Planck-Institute of Animal Behavior, Germany) field station, operational since 2002, in the evergreen lowland rainforest of the western buffer zone of Salonga National Park, Block South, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo © LKBP / Christian Ziegler.

The study found areas near field stations lost about 18% less forest than similar spots without stations, especially in Africa. To measure forest loss, the scientists studied 20 years of satellite images, comparing areas within the field station to areas with similar initial forest cover, protection status, climate, human population density, and road density 5 to 50 kilometers (3 to 31 miles) away.

According to the study, the surveyed field stations provide habitat for more than 1,200 animal species at risk of extinction. Researchers arrived at this number by counting the number of threatened or data deficient mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles likely to live within a 5 kilometer radius around each field station, based on the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species.

These conservation benefits come at a median cost of around $637 per square kilometer, according to the study, or about $1,650 per square mile — far below the average budgets for protected areas globally.

The analysis was based on a well-supported assumption that field stations protect an area equivalent to a radius of 5 km around them, and on the median annual budget of around $50,000 reported by stations in the study. (More than half of the stations surveyed operated on less than that.)

The Centro de Investigaciones Científicas de las Huastecas “Aguazarca” (CICHAZ) field station in Hidalgo, Mexico says they prioritize work with the community. Image courtesy of CICHAZ

Beyond direct conservation, field stations can also be good for local communities, according to the study. Almost all of the 157 field stations surveyed employed local staff, with many hiring dozens of people. The stations also trained students, apprentices and volunteers from the area, while more than a third hosted tourists, bringing in thousands of visitors per year and boosting the local economy.

However, many field stations have colonial histories, especially in the tropics.

“There is a history there that we need to be really mindful of in our activities,” Rhonda Struminger, president of the Organization of Biological Field Stations and co-director of the CICHAZ field station in Mexico, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay. “[Field stations] should provide financial benefits and resources to the communities they’re located in … The most successful field stations have figured this out.”

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Barro Colorado in Panama. Image by Eclectek via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Struminger said she “appreciates the conservation return on investment approach taken by this study as well as the authors’ call for more funding of field stations.” Given their conservation and community benefits, she added, field stations are “underappreciated and underfunded.”

Field stations have always dealt with financial struggles, and the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted their funding, the study found. Roughly half of the surveyed field stations had to close partially, and about one-quarter remained partially or completely closed at the time of the survey, between March and June 2022.

“Getting funding to operate a field station is not easy,” Eppley said. Most field stations are funded by visiting researchers, tourists, or sometimes affiliated universities and grants.

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation offers Field Station and Marine Laboratory capacity-building grants, Struminger said. She urges more countries to establish programs that support the work of field stations.

Aerial view of the Danau Girang Field Centre on the shore of an oxbow lake along the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Image by Oliver Deppert.

“These stations are in many ways on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” Struminger said. “They monitor the environment and collect long-term data while also bringing the scientific endeavor to the public.”

The 157 stations surveyed in the study estimated that they collectively support more than 300 scientific publications and host 700 to 3,000 researchers a year. Most also collect invaluable long-term ecological data.

However, this study covered just a small slice of field stations. By some estimates, there are more than 1,400 field stations throughout the world.

Eppley said much of the information and research used to inform global environmental policy and goals (like the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework) come from field stations, but few explicitly mention them.

“It’s bizarre, because field stations underpin our ability to accurately monitor the progress towards those [global environmental] goals and the information they produce helps them meet and monitor those targets,” Eppley said. Failing to include field stations in biodiversity frameworks, he added, “represents a profound missed opportunity.”

“Many people do not even know that field stations exist,” Struminger said, “but they really have become a nexus for advancing our understanding of the natural world and preserving its biodiversity.”

Banner image of tropical royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus occidentalis) photographed on the Jama Coaque Reserve. Photo by Euan Ferguson / Third Millennium Alliance

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of this topic with the director of a major research station in Costa Rica, Andrew Whitworth, listen here:


Biological field stations: Indispensable but ‘invisible’



Eppley, T. M., Reuter, K. E., Sefczek, T. M., Tinsman, J., Santini, L., Hoeks, S., … Mittermeier, R. A. (2024). Tropical field stations yield high conservation return on investment. Conservation Letters. doi:10.1111/conl.13007

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