Conservation Scholars: Gretchen Daily

27 09 2008

This series on ConservationBytes.com takes a page out of our book Tropical Conservation Biology (Sodhi, Brook & Bradshaw) – therein we produced a series of ‘Spotlights’ describing the contributions of great thinkers to conservation science. Each highlight of a Conservation Scholar includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on the person’s particular area of expertise.

Our second Conservation Scholar is Gretchen Daily

Biography

I am an ecologist working to develop a scientific basis and financial and institutional support for managing Earth’s life-support systems. My primary efforts are focused on making conservation mainstream, economically attractive and commonplace. I came to environmental science at a young age. In the name of adventure, my family moved to West Germany when I was twelve years old. It was 1977, and I woke up to a turbulent world of street demonstrations against environmental devastation. Protesters said acid was falling from the sky and that no one was doing anything about it. I could hardly fathom this. A few years later, I heard about a high school science competition and, with the encouragement of a dream chemistry teacher, I signed up. He thought acid raid was a bit too ambitious a topic, but helped me launch a study of the pollution in a nearby river, whereby I discovered my passion for scientific research. Although I could spend lifetimes exploring the wonders of the universe for sheer pleasure, I find I cannot take my mind off of the big issues confronting society. It’s clear that scientific understanding is but one of a complex of interacting factors shaping the future. Science alone will get us nowhere. So, after post-graduate school in ecology, I took up a wonderful research position designed to foster new, integrated approaches to environmental issues. I began building a background in economics, law and other key disciplines, and cultivating a network of people far removed from academia who shared a sense of urgency about the state of the environment. This diverse group helped me arrive at new ways of thinking about the environment, revealing the wealth of opportunities to make conservation both practical and profitable. While we still need a lot more scientific understanding to proceed effectively, our greatest challenge now lies in the social realm, including trying to scale up and replicate the small models of success to date.

Major Publications

Questions and Answers

1. How can the conceptual framework of ‘countryside biogeography’ be used to enhance ecosystem functioning and services in human-dominated tropical landscapes?

“Countryside biogeography” is a new conceptual framework for elucidating the fates of populations, species, and ecosystems in ‘countryside’ – the growing fraction of Earth’s unbuilt land surface whose ecosystem qualities are strongly influenced by humanity. With numerous collaborators, I have launched investigations of the countryside biogeography of a variety of strategically selected taxa, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, bees, and plants. We have discovered that at least half of the native species (and the vast majority of families) in each group persist, over at least the short to medium term (50-100 years), in countryside typical of much of the tropics. We have also gained considerable insight into the role that different habitat elements and configurations play in driving patterns of distribution. Major questions are whether this high potential conservation value exists in countryside globally, and whether it can be sustained over the long term (centuries to millennia). Preliminary work suggests that the patterns we have found are predictable and general, and also that substantial conservation value can indeed be sustained for thousands of years (such as in India), in a variety of agricultural production systems.

2. Your research focuses on some fundamental conservation questions such as: which constituents of Earth’s biota (and with which attributes) are likely to survive (assuming that human impacts on the environment intensify as projected)? How how has your focus on this question changed over time?

When I began addressing this question, the prevailing view was that the clues to the future of biodiversity were to be found in remnants of native habitat – Noah’s Arks floating in a hostile sea of development. The logic was that most organisms are highly adapted to their native habitats and that few, therefore, would be able to exploit areas heavily modified by human activities. In general, those few would not require or merit protection. Through my own work and recent research of others, I have since discovered, to the contrary, that human-dominated ecosystems can retain substantial conservation value, and that there is now a rapidly closing window of opportunity to sustain this value.

3. From a scientific perspective, which species/systems most merit protection?

I am actively attempting to link projected changes in biodiversity and ecosystems to changes in “services” to humanity. These services include production of goods (e.g., seafood and timber), life-support processes (pollination and water purification), life-fulfilling conditions (beauty and serenity), and options (genetic diversity for future use). An example of this work demonstrated a high value of tropical forest as an input to coffee production via the supply of pollinators – showing that conservation investments can pay off even in prime farmland within existing economic and legal systems.

4. What strategies can make conservation attractive and commonplace worldwide?

I have worked with many colleagues to launch the Natural Capital Project, a partnership among The Nature Conservancy (TNC), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and Stanford University to make conservation attractive and commonplace worldwide. The project aspires to provide maps of nature’s services, assess their values in economic and other terms, and – for the first time on any significant scale – incorporate those values into resource decisions.

CJA Bradshaw

(with thanks to Navjot Sodhi, Barry Brook, Ward Cooper, Wiley-Blackwell and Gretchen Daily for permission to reproduce the text – buy your copy of Tropical Conservation Biology here)

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