First map of reptile distribution reveals another piece of the conservation puzzle

Monika Böhm

Knowledge of species distributions is vital to address broad-scale ecological questions and prioritize conservation action, but it's no mean feat. ZSL has been involved in a huge effort to map global reptile distributions, led by our colleagues at the University of Oxford and Tel Aviv University. Now that the maps are published for the first time, what are they telling us about the conservation of reptiles?

Uromastyx aegyptia © Alex Slavenko
Uromastyx aegyptia

When we published our analyses on the global conservation status of reptiles in early 2013, based on a random sample of 1,500 reptile species, reptiles made their first proper appearance on the global conservation map. Since then, conservation assessments on the IUCN Red List have increased dramatically, especially due to the amazing work of the Global Reptile Assessment - led by our friends at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Conservation International.

However, in many ways, our conservation assessments depend greatly on information about a species' distribution - and this data had so far been very difficult to get to. Where do you find distribution information? In field guides, papers, and the notebooks of experts. How do you compile these data? Through long and hard work digitising published distribution maps, verifying records, and assembling a network of experts.

This is precisely what the Global Assessment of Reptile Distributions (GARD) set out to do. Led by researchers at the University of Oxford and Tel Aviv University, the project assembled 39 scientists and has now produced (and for the first time published!) a catalogue and atlas of the world’s reptiles. Why is this such a breakthrough? Maps showing the habitats of almost all birds, mammals and amphibians have been completed since 2006, but it was widely thought that many reptile species were too poorly known to be mapped. Does this matter? Yes, it does, because spatial priority setting of terrestrial regions which deserve conservation attention had so far been primarily based on the distributions of mammals, birds and amphibians.

Adding reptiles into the mix has revealed regions which previously did not feature highly as biodiversity priorities: the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, inland arid southern Africa, the Asian steppes, the central Australian deserts, the Brazilian caatinga scrubland, and the high southern Andes. Or, as lead author Uri Roll (now of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev) says: 'Lizards especially tend to have weird distributions and often like hot and dry places, so many of the newly identified conservation priority areas are in drylands and deserts. These don’t tend to be priorities for birds or mammals, so we couldn’t have guessed them in advance.'

Let's have some numbers: the project, first planned by Professor Shai Meiri from Tel Aviv University more than ten years ago (science takes time!), has mapped the distribution of a staggering 10,064 reptile species! And the job is never really done: new reptile species are being discovered and described at a phenomenal rate. In 2008, the Reptile Database listed 8,734 species; the number in August 2016 stood at 10,450 species. So really, after the reptile mapping is before the reptile mapping. 

Vipera ammodytes © Alex Slavenko
Vipera ammodytes

What this mapping effort has shown is that while richness patterns of all reptiles align pretty well with richness patterns based on other vertebrates (birds, mammals and amphibians), lizards and turtles are not very well represented. In fact, hotspots of total and endemic lizard richness overlap very little with those of other species groups. In addition to this, existing protected areas represent birds and mammals better than reptiles, and additional conservation actions are needed to effectively protect reptiles, particularly lizards and turtles, putting emphasis on the protection of the world’s arid, grassland, and savannah habitats. For more information, you can access the paper showing the reptile maps here.

Where to next for the project? As mentioned above, the IUCN are currently classifying the species featured in the reptile map for the IUCN Red List, i.e. assessing each species' extinction risk along a scale from "Least Concern" to "Critically Endangered”. Once complete, the data will be freely available for public access and use, and will allow a range of stakeholders, from countries, to conservation organisations, businesses and individuals, to understand the biodiversity in their surrounding environment, its importance and crucially, what they can do to better protect it. 

For the GARD group, the production of the reptile distribution map is only the first step - we can now use this resource to delve deeper into the drivers behind the spatial distribution of reptiles, design best conservation actions, and hopefully aid Red List assessments by using spatial data and other information about species to predict extinction risk of species. An earlier ZSL study suggested that there may be a way to predict extinction risk based on range size coupled with other key factors, such as measures of accessibility of a species’ range to humans (or measures of other anthropogenic influences). So more work is in the pipeline to increase our knowlegde on reptiles, their distribution, status and threat. One thing is for sure already though: reptiles have well and truly entered the conservation arena, with a multitude of global assessments and increased interest in incorporating them into the conservation agenda. Look out for the next blog on these amazing creatures!

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