The way humans use land is benefitting the same animals and plants everywhere

Human habitat modifications are favouring the same species everywhere, while unique species are disappearing, according to a new paper.

A new study led by Prof Andy Purvis, a research leader at the Natural History Museum and Dr Tim Newbold, a research fellow at University College London (UCL), has revealed that manmade changes to habitats have a negative effect on the organisms living there - but not all species are affected equally by land use. 

The study used data from 81 countries to show that when humans modify natural habitats through activities such as farming, forestry and building the animals and plants that are restricted to that part of the world tend to decline, and are replaced by others that are common to many places. The effect is seen most obviously in the abundance of pigeons and rats that benefit from cities and farms all over the world.

The researchers found that species already occupying a large area increased in places where humans use the land, while species occupying a small area were more likely to be lost. Crucially, this pattern was seen in every kind of human land use. This is important because it means that human actions are favouring much the same species everywhere, while the many species that are unique to specific places are disappearing.

The findings suggest a disruption to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, which support our natural environment and are critical in our efforts to grow food.

Research leader Prof Andy Purvis says, 'What is happening to biodiversity is similar to what is happening to high streets in British towns and cities. As small, independent retailers are going out of business, large chains dominate. It makes all towns look the same, and it's less easy to tell where you are. Likewise, people are affecting nature everywhere they go, and everywhere there are localised species which are struggling to make a living.'

Plants and animals that live only on small areas of land are already at higher risk of extinction than species which have adapted to live all over the world. When humans disturb those small habitats, it can push organisms even closer to the brink of extinction.

It all adds up to a global reduction in biodiversity. Added to which, species that live in small areas tend to have need of a very specific climate, making them more sensitive to climate change.

Five hundred researchers contributed data to this study creating a combined dataset made up of 1.1 million records from 445 scientific surveys all over the world. It is part of the PREDICTS project, a global database of terrestrial species' responses to human pressures.

Andy says, 'It is helpful to have a dataset that is so extensive, and that covers so many taxonomic groups because we want to know what is happening globally. A lot of what we know about the state of nature, we know from a very small number of taxonomic groups. But looking at the best-known groups might not give you an accurate picture of what is happening to biodiversity across the world as a whole.'

The study was published in PLoS Biology. It is hoped that the findings and the PREDICTS project as a whole will impact efforts to conserve the world's biodiversity.

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