From tropical forests to deep ocean trenches: the first comprehensive classification of ecosystems will inform and empower conservation action across the world

A new study by a global team of scientists including ZSL researchers has for the first time comprehensively classified the world’s ecosystems – providing a common platform that defines and describes every ecosystem, across land, rivers and wetlands, and seas.

The ZSL conservation team in the Philippines planting mangroves

The important ecosystem typology study, published today in Nature and led by researchers at UNSW Sydney, has the ultimate goal of enabling more unified and effective ecosystem management and restoration across the globe. 

Led by Professor David Keith, with Professor Richard Kingsford from UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, and Professor Emily Nicholson from Deakin University, the landmark paper explores the science behind the new typology, as well as how it can help support both global environmental policy and the formation of nature-based solutions to the threats facing biodiversity in every ecosystem.

The global ecosystem typology describes the diversity of tropical forests, big rivers, coral reefs and other well-known ecosystems, but also includes little-known ecosystems of deep ocean trenches, seamounts and lakes beneath the ice sheets. 

ZSL senior scientist Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, who contributed to the paper, said: "Conservation is about biodiversity and biodiversity means more than just species; ecosystems are an important dimension of biodiversity, the functioning of which underpin all the services we get from nature – from carbon sequestration to food provision and clean air and climate regulation. 

“To date, prioritising and tracking progress in ecosystem conservation has been challenging, partly due to the lack of a common understanding of what an ecosystem is and how many types of there are. This work addresses this issue, providing us with a solid foundation for advancing both ecosystems and species conservation."

The typology also facilitates an understanding of broad global patterns, including the transformation of ecosystems by people, many of which are at acute risk of collapse. 10% of ecosystems are artificially created and maintained by humans but occupy more than 30% of the Earth’s land surface – what is left is home to 94% of threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List

A coral reef

The extensive collaboration involved the IUCN, which comprises about 1400 member organisations including the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, the PLuS Alliance – Arizona State University, Kings College London and UNSW Sydney; alongside more than 100 specialist ecosystem scientists around the world. With UNSW’s support, IUCN launched the first public version of the typology in 2020 and researchers have since refined and updated it, leading to this week’s important Nature publication. 

The new typology comes ahead of a landmark season for our planet, with international meetings such as the upcoming Conferences of the Parties (COPs) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP27) and of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), which is poised to put a much-needed spotlight on the big issues impacting biodiversity.

"In a few weeks, the world will come together to agree on a new deal for global biodiversity. Our work demonstrates how progress on ecosystem conservation can be tangibly tracked, thanks to the identification of a unifying theoretical context that can guide the transformation of ecosystem policy and management from global to local scales. As such, it offers a platform to advance ecosystem conservation under a new global biodiversity framework,” explained Dr Pettorelli. 

"ZSL is committed to nature recovery, working on the restoration and rewilding of many ecosystems worldwide. This new typology will support our efforts to advance ecosystem conservation, helping us to assess risks to ecosystems globally in a standardised way, and to enrich available knowledge for the management and restoration of specific ecosystems.”

It is imperative that policymakers use science-based approaches - such as this new typology and other tools developed by researchers at ZSL and across the world - to unify their responses to the threats facing biodiversity today. As we countdown to COP season, ZSL is calling for world leaders to put nature at the heart of all global decision making, from rewilding cities to providing better protections for ecosystems, wildlife and the local communities who rely on them.

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