Helping species on the move
8 March 2018 by Julia Horton
Could this be the answer to conserving life, the universe and everything?
Phillip Whelpdale of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust admits to being tongue in cheek with his bold, questioning reference to cult science fiction comedy The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, in which a supercomputer mysteriously calculates the meaning of life as 42.
But working out where species will thrive in future, as global warming pushes them north seeking cooler places, and key habitat is lost as industries and housing spread, is a serious problem.
Dr Jenny Hodgson at the University of Liverpool developed a way of showing how quickly species shift their range when their habitat gets broken up. She used that to develop a pioneering computer programme called Condatis - funded by NERC - to give animals the best chance of survival in an ever-changing environment.
The programme pulls in data from conservationists' understanding of where wildlife is now and where animals might move in future. From there it creates maps predicting how quickly creatures will be able to shift from one site to another and which routes they are most likely to use.
After a few weeks trialling the system to look at restoring grassland for species including butterflies, Phillip thinks it has real potential to help charities UK-wide decide where to create, improve and connect vital meadows, woods and other habitat. He said:
Historically, nature conservation was about having a nature reserve with a fence around it and telling everyone to keep out. Now it's about having more, bigger and better joined up sites. Wildlife trusts around the country have identified networks of these so-called living landscapes.
It's early days with the software for me, but I can see that the cluster sites we have here for restoring grasslands, which have become fragmented as farming has taken over more of the land, seem to coincide with the bottlenecks shown by Condatis for species moving from site to site, where more habitat is likely to be needed as a result.
That suggests we have been choosing the right locations for creating a better living network of habitat. We do need better data, because the system is only as good as the information conservationists type into it, but I think the software could help different groups and areas across the UK work together more effectively in future.
Phillip is among several conservationists who were invited to the University of Liverpool in January 2018, where Condatis was created by conservation biologist Dr Jenny Hodgson, to help experts there make further improvements to the programme. One of the key advantages the software offers for charities is a chance to compare different potential locations for restoring habitat before investing in them - crucial information for organisations with limited resources.
Making a B-Line for the best habitat
Another charity, Buglife, has been successfully using the software for several years to restore links between wildflower meadows across the UK for insects under a scheme known as B-Lines. Jamie Robins, charity projects manager, said simply:
If we have ten sites where we could improve habitat and we can't restore all of them, the programme shows us which to target to get most value for money.
There are lots of factors which affect conservation, including the likelihood that landowners will be willing to work with charities. Dr Kath Allen, a conservation biologist at the University of Liverpool whose job involves helping environmental groups get the most from Condatis, said a newer version due out later this year will address that and other issues too:
The current software doesn't tell you how easy it might be to restore a certain habitat. If the land is owned by another conservation charity, like the National Trust, restoration will probably be easier than if the land is owned by industry. The new version will take that into account too, creating a kind of heat map highlighting sites that will deliver high benefit in relation to their cost, such as the time and effort to persuade landowners.
The new software will also mean that charities will no longer have to download and run Condatis, which can take days and requires up-to-date technology that non-government agencies often cannot afford. Condatis is also set to be used further afield, including in South-East Asia. Conservationists in Borneo hope it will help to identify and connect the most likely areas for wildlife to survive as rainforest is destroyed by both legal and illegal logging.
Longer term, the Condatis website will let charities around the world share invaluable information on how they are using the software - perhaps finally providing the answer to conserving life on earth, if not quite the universe and everything else.
Condatis uses data about UK wildlife habitats that's been generated over decades by NERC-funded research. Find out more on the Condatis website - external link.