Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Using clouds to locate threatened species

Cloud coverage could help identify biodiversity hotspots Cloud coverage could help identify biodiversity hotspots Wilson and Jetz
06 Apr
2016
How can we conserve species and biodiversity hotspots that haven’t been located on the ground? The answer could be in the skies

It can be hard to protect what you are unsure about. ‘For the regions that harbour most biodiversity there’s a real lack of data on the ground,’ says Walter Jetz, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. In many cases, species can be elusive and hotspots can be isolated geographically. Enter clouds.

Clouds could provide an unconventional source of ecological information. Cloud cover influences growth, survival, behaviour and even the reproduction of species, so by mapping the Earth’s coverage, it is possible to locate ecological biomes with startling accuracy. After observing 15 years of satellite data, a team from the University of Buffalo has done just that. ‘When we visualised the data, it was remarkable how clearly you could see many different biomes on Earth,’ says Adam Wilson, co-author of the research and Professor of Geography at the University of Buffalo. ‘As you cross from one ecosystem to another, those transitions show up very clearly.’ The cloud maps, available to play with here, allow you to directly observe the transitions at a one kilometre resolution.

maps2The world map (top right) is coloured according to month of peak cloudiness (top left). Areas of little seasonality are shown in black and areas of no data are dark grey. The panels from South America (bottom left) and South Africa (bottom right) show cloud cover corresponding to the borders of distinct ecoregions (marked in red) (Image: Wilson and Jetz)

If you can understand the biome and its surroundings, you can be fairly confident of the species inside it. By referring to cloud cover, the team was able to determine the location and size of habitats for two test species: the montane woodcreeper (a South American bird) and king protea (a South African shrub) with unprecedented detail. Using this kind of remote sensing from satellite data allows biologists like Jetz to predict species distribution in hard-to-reach places. ‘That finding is particularly exciting because the technique could be used to research the habitats of threatened plants and animals,’ he says. ‘Understanding the spatial patterns of biodiversity is critical if we want to make informed decisions about how to protect species and manage biodiversity.’

‘We show that remote sensing combined with the right science can be an effective tool to help inform policy,’ says Wilson.

Related items

Subscribe and Save!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

The prestigious photography awards to go on display in some…

Tectonics

The discovery of a slow-motion earthquake near Istanbul, which took…

Oceans

The 2014 to 2016 marine heatwave, which took place off…

Climate

Marco Magrini discovers that hydrogen is back, but hopefully not…

Wildlife

 A ten-year analysis of chimpanzees has revealed that the presence…

Wildlife

The return of the pine marten to UK forests has…

Energy

A project in Orkney is converting excess wind energy into…

Geophoto

Mountains provide a dramatic sight at the best of times,…

Wildlife

A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in…

Oceans

Four scientists have banded together to make the case against the farming of octopuses, arguing…

Climate

As planetary oil consumption hits the 100-million-barrel mark Marco Magrini…

Oceans

A ship that ran aground early in February has been…

Wildlife

Two whale populations on either side of the African continent…

Geophoto

March traditionally heralds the beginning of spring, a time of…

Wildlife

An innovative project to utilise Laos’ elephant experts in service…

Polar

Despite common belief that Antarctica is vastly uninhabited, humans are…

Wildlife

Javan rhinos survived the recent Krakatoa tsunami, but the species…

Energy

As the world turns away from fossil fuels, one question…

Geophoto

The winners of the Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2018…

Climate

New legislation in Florida aims to solve various environmental issues,…