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Management of global biodiversity requires up-to-date, reliable and comparable biodiversity data. The concept of Essential Biodiversity Variables has previously been introduced to allow monitoring the global state of biodiversity. In a new perspective paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution, a group of international biodiversity researchers now shows how trait variability within species can be incorporated in Essential Biodiversity Variables to allow monitoring of how organisms respond to global change. This new information is crucial for international policy goals on biodiversity such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set by the Convention for Biological Diversity.

Mature cods of different sizes (credits: Jan Dierking)

Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) have been proposed to derive coordinated measurements that are critical for detecting and reporting biodiversity change. Just like climate variables, EBVs are constructed from various sources of data and in that way, they are the underlying variables to assess biodiversity change through time. EBVs can be used to measure the achievement of policy targets and as such EBVs play an important role in biodiversity related policy decisions.

Species traits

The published research is the outcome of a workshop organized by the H2020 project GLOBIS-B ‘GLOBal Infrastructure for Supporting Biodiversity research’ funded by the European Commission. During this workshop in March 2017, a group of 21 scientific experts discussed the requirements for developing the EBV class ‘Species Traits’ which can cover for example measurements of phenology, morphology, reproduction, physiology or migratory behaviour.

W. Daniel Kissling, lead author of the paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, and researcher at the UvA Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, says: ‘Currently there is no detailed framework for the empirical derivation of most EBVs. In our paper, we provide a conceptual framework with practical guidelines for building global, integrated and reusable EBV data products of species traits. This facilitates the monitoring of intra-specific trait changes in response to global change and human pressures, with the aim to use species trait information in national and international policy assessments.’

Biodiversity policy

The international research team assessed the societal relevance of species traits and highlighted their underrepresentation in current biodiversity change indicators that are used to assess policy targets. Kissling: ‘I was surprised that there is such a lack of species trait information in current policy assessments of biodiversity change. We outline the steps needed for data-intensive science and effective global coordination to advance the inclusion of species trait information into indicators of biodiversity change, and how collected trait data can be shared in an open and machine-readable way.’

Making biodiversity data available for policy assessments requires substantial financial and in kind investments from universities, research infrastructures, governments, space agencies and other funding bodies. Kissling emphasizes: ‘The operationalization requires not only more funding, but also a cultural shift towards more openness, interoperability and reproducibility within the broader science community. In my own research group ( I am currently promoting trait-based research in macro-ecology and biodiversity, including the publication of open-access datasets on species traits.’

Publication details

W. Daniel Kissling, Ramona Walls, Anne Bowser, Matthew O. Jones, Jens Kattge, Donat Agosti, Josep Amengual, Alberto Basset, Peter M. van Bodegom, Johannes H. C. Cornelissen, Ellen G. Denny, Salud Deudero, Willi Egloff, Sarah Elmendorf, Enrique Alonso García, Katherine D. Jones, Owen R. Jones, Sandra Lavorel, Dan Lear, Laetitia M. Navarro, Samraat Pawar, Rebecca Pirzl, Nadja Rüger, Sofia Sal, Roberto Salguero-Gómez, Dmitry Schigel, Katja-Sabine Schulz, Andrew Skidmore & Robert P. Guralnick: ‘Towards global data products of Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) on species traits’ in Nature Ecology and Evolution, 17 September 2018. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0667-3.