The changing map of life on Earth

Life is found across the planet, including in some pretty inhospitable places. Plants and animals have adapted and thrive everywhere from icy Antarctica to the Sonoran desert; from deep-sea hydrothermal vents to freshwater lakes and temperate woodlands.

Some regions, known as biodiversity hotspots, support incredible numbers and varieties of living things. Tropical rain forests and coral reefs are among the most productive and diverse places for life on Earth, and yet face unprecedented threats to their survival.

NOAA-coral reef 2
Scientists accounted for almost 11,000 fish species, along with tens of thousands of arthropods, cnidarians, worms and other animals, in a map of Earth’s biodiversity. Photo courtesy NOAA.

But what factors make some places species-rich? What ecological influences are most critical to sustaining varied and abundant life? And how will the accelerating impacts of human-driven climate change affect species and the places that support them?

Scientists now have an answer — one that will help inform efforts to preserve biodiversity and protect critical habitats as climate change continues to disrupt ecosystems across the planet.

A unified map reveals Earth’s richness

Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, together with colleagues from the University of British Columbia, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other institutions, have created the first unified global biodiversity map covering species both on land and in the ocean.

Their work documents more than 67,000 marine and terrestrial species to determine where the most species occur worldwide and to identify the environmental drivers that influence whether life will thrive or struggle.

A new study charts the abundance of life on Earth, both on land and at sea.

By combining observational data with a new machine-learning approach that uses artificial neural networks, they’ve mapped and forecasted where species should occur based on primary food production from plants, temperature, elevation (on land), depth (in the ocean), precipitation (on land), and dissolved oxygen (in the ocean), among other factors.

The research documents which of these “environmental drivers” matters most for living species. This can inform resource managers as they work to protect critical habitats and species in a time of accelerating global change.

“Maps show us where we are,” said Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium and senior author for the paper published February 5 in PLOS ONE. “This study also shows us where we are going.”

Where land meets ocean

The ocean, global biodiversity and human society are all deeply interconnected. The ocean serves as the heart of our planet’s climate system, providing benefits like food, predictable weather patterns and a steady global average temperature. But some human activity, such as burning fossil fuels for energy, disrupts global biodiversity — not only driving climate change, but also impeding the ocean’s ability to buffer it. 

Monterey Bay Aquarium - wild kelp at Monastery Beach - credit Patrick Webster
Scientists explored how Earth’s plant growth and photosynthesis, among other environmental factors, influence global biodiversity.

Through this study, scientists have developed a better and more accurate understanding of biodiversity: the land and ocean areas that wildlife currently inhabit, where these species might end up moving, and how we can best protect them in a changing world.

Determining where species are most abundant, along with charting the patterns of their movements, represents one of the pillars of ecology. But for a long time, such studies have focused mostly on the terrestrial realm due to the greater accessibility and lower cost of sampling on land. 

“We are terrestrial creatures, and so we have a natural bias favoring the land,” said Dr. Clinton Jenkins, a professor at the IPÊ – Institute for Ecological Research in São Paulo, Brazil. “However, much of the world’s diversity is aquatic, living in the 70 percent of the Earth’s surface that is ocean, lakes and rivers.”

In other words, this team of scientists sought to better understand the biosphere as a whole, not just the parts with which we are already most familiar, Clinton said.

Soldierfish help represent our blue planet’s marine biodiversity, offering clues about how species abundance could change.

“By gathering information on both the ocean and terrestrial realm, we were able to integrate the work of two scientific communities that have the same objectives, to provide a unified picture of life on Earth that has sustained humanity for centuries,” said Dr. Gabriel Reygondeau, co-author of the paper and a research associate at the University of British Columbia and Yale University.

“Studying the global patterns of diversity without regard to realm allows us to reevaluate our theoretical knowledge in the discipline,” he explained. “This will provide more efficient tools in the context of a biodiversity crisis, which is truly global.”  

Charting a course for the future

The research will have practical applications for resource managers, said co-author Dr. Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. 

Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo - MBA credit
Elephant seals were among the almost 45,000 marine species included in this comprehensive new study charting biodiversity on Earth.

“This helps us document where climate change mechanisms may influence animals most and identify environmental conditions that have more or less biodiversity than we might expect,” he said.

“We need to understand the drivers of biodiversity to preserve species within ecosystems that are moving due to changing environmental conditions, and to allow us to take a more dynamic approach toward protecting them.”

Tyler Gagné, a data scientist and lead analyst of the study, developed the data analytics framework that underpins the global mapping while working at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The data highlight places that are species-rich and species poor, as well as regions on land and in the ocean that support more, or fewer, species than the topography and environmental conditions predict.

“Current patterns of species richness are the result of ecological and evolutionary processes that unfolded over geological time scales — millions of years,” Kyle said. “We are now witnessing global change at a pace we have not experienced.”

The fixed limits of national parks and marine protected areas may be questioned as conditions change and species move in search of more favorable locations, he said.

Humpback whale breaching MBA owned
Migratory animals like humpback whales will need greater, more dynamic protection in a changing ocean.

“Protected areas on land and in the ocean were created to protect ecological communities in stable environments, but what do we do if protected species move beyond these boundaries?” Kyle asked. 

Luckily, this science supports solutions.

“Our research has pinpointed the environmental factors that allow such an abundance of life to flourish on Earth and enables a flexible, data-driven approach to protect the biodiversity of our one wild and precious planet.” 

— Ken Peterson


One thought on “The changing map of life on Earth”

  1. I’d like to see an animated time lapse of human population expansion overlayed on species diversity over the same time frame of the last 1000 years and then, to represent the industrial age, just the last 150.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s