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Preserving the tree of life

By: Dr Dan Faith, Category: Science, Date: 09 Jan 2015

If you had to choose to save just one critically endangered species, which would it be and why?

Preserving the tree of life

Preserving the tree of life
Photographer: Creative Commons © www.onezoom.org

The Black Crested Gibbon, Nomascus concolor, and Western Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla, are both critically endangered. If you had to choose to save just one, which would it be and why?

The answer (see below) is all about the tree of life and risks of extinction. I’m wrapping up activities on this topic under a grant from the UK’s Royal Society. I organised an international meeting last year (with co-leads from Kew Gardens and George Washington University) to discuss phylogeny, extinction and related biodiversity issues.

The meeting involved some good outreach too with our 12 talks open to the public, plus a number of blogs and interviews, including one for New Scientist. The audio of my talk can be downloaded on this web page. The talks have been published this week in a special issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B for which I am a guest editor.

My own contributed papers, on phylogenetic diversity and extinction, help explain why ‘the tree of life and extinction’ provides a good unifying theme for the Great Walk gallery.

In one paper, we presented the following teaching example. We consider the following question: ‘The Black Crested Gibbon and the Western Gorilla are both critically endangered. Which of these is it best to save?’

The standard accepted method would choose the Western Gorilla, because it represents about 6 million years of unique evolutionary history (see diagram), twice that of the Black Crested Gibbon.

However, we argue that the best choice is the Black Crested Gibbon. Protecting it could secure 22 million years of imperilled evolutionary history; protecting the Western Gorilla secures only 12 million – given its secure relative, humans. You’ll find more examples in our paper here.

Further reading:

The Royal Society web page for the meeting will provide ongoing background on the topic.