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What is conservation?

Our approach to conservation will determine how successful the outcomes are. Dr. Callum Macgregor explains more in this video.
What actions can we take to protect species and preserve biodiversity? For many ecologists like myself, answering this question is what motivates us on a day-to-day basis. To some, conservation can mean protecting a single, charismatic species in its core habitat. And indeed, this still forms a major part of conservation efforts globally. Conserving a single species requires an in-depth, detailed understanding of its ecology which can only come from scientific research. It’s never as simple as fencing off an area of land and hoping the target species will thrive. We have to understand whether there any human influences that affect wildlife populations, and what actions we can take to mitigate those.
For example, University of York researchers are investigating how rangers in African national parks can improve their patrol management to have the biggest impact on reducing illegal activities such as bushmeat poaching, livestock grazing and timber harvesting. More fundamentally, we need to know the answers to questions
like: what food resources does a species require to breed, and what conditions allow those food resources themselves to thrive? Detailed studies of the Dark Bordered Beauty moth have allowed University of York researchers to implement effective habitat management practices at its last surviving English population, pulling it back from the brink of regional extinction by increasing the number and size of the Creeping Willow plants that its caterpillars prefer to eat. Nowadays, nature reserves (and other protected areas) frequently aim to protect not just one specific species, but a specific habitat, and all of the species that call it home.
For this, it can be just as important to understand the processes by which biodiversity can be maximised, as the individual requirements of every species. Ecological succession is crucial. Different communities of species thrive at different stages of a habitat’s succession. To ensure that there are ecological niches for all species, including those which, like many species of butterflies, prefer early “pioneer” communities, we can provide a patchwork of lots of different successional stages by creating variable levels of disturbance. This principle of a patchwork of habitats also applies to conservation at a landscape scale. Is it enough to provide one, perfect, habitat patch, maintained at the right successional stage, for each species?
In fact, having a network of habitat patches, which individuals can move freely between, helps to maintain the genetic diversity of populations and can buffer them against human pressures and a changing environment. From preserving single species to making the most out of protected areas and entire landscapes, lots of the science that we do here in York to understand the ecology of species feeds back into conservation efforts. And by answering some of the questions discussed in this film, we can guide conservationists and land managers, ensuring that action taken on the ground leads to the most positive outcomes for priority species and biodiversity in general.

Understanding the ecology of species is critical to informing our efforts for their preservation.

Listen to Dr. Callum Macgregor discussing the many faces of conservation, from protecting single species to preserving habitats and the connections between them at a landscape scale. We discuss how each type of conservation is underpinned by ecological research, from understanding the habitat requirements of single species and the effectiveness of conservation actions to interpreting the processes that maximise biodiversity in nature reserves and over larger regions.

Here are some questions to consider while you’re watching the video. We’d be happy to hear from you in the comments once you’ve watched the video.

  • Is conserving a single species the most efficient use of limited funding for conservation?
  • Under what circumstances might it be more or less important to conserve a single species?
  • Why do you think different species of butterflies (and other animals) prefer habitats at different stages of succession?
  • How do multiple habitat patches provide better insurance against human pressures and a changing environment rather than one single patch?
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