A Magic Number?
An Australian team says it has figured out the minimum viable population for mammals, reptiles, birds, plants and the rest
Imagine how useful it would be if someone calculated the minimum population needed to preserve each threatened organism on Earth, especially in this age of accelerated extinctions.
A group of Australian researchers say they have nailed the best figure achievable with the available data: 5,000 adults. That’s right, that many, for mammals, amphibians, insects, plants and the rest.
Their goal wasn’t a target for temporary survival. Instead they set the bar much higher, aiming for a census that would allow a species to pursue a standard evolutionary lifespan, which can vary from one to 10 million years.
That sort of longevity requires abundance sufficient for a species to thrive despite significant obstacles, including random variation in sex ratios or birth and death rates, natural catastrophes and habitat decline. It also requires enough genetic variation to allow adequate amounts of beneficial mutations to emerge and spread within a populace.
“We have suggested that a major rethink is required on how we assign relative risk to a species,” says conservation biologist Lochran Traill of the University of Adelaide, lead author of a Biological Conservation paper describing the projection.
Conservation biologists already have plenty on their minds these days. Many have concluded that if current rates of species loss continue worldwide, Earth will face a mass extinction comparable to the five big extinction events documented in the past. This one would differ, however, because it would be driven by the destructive growth of one species: us.
More than 17,000 of the 47,677 species assessed for vulnerability of extinction are threatened, according to the latest Red List of Threatened Species prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That includes 21 percent of known mammals, 30 percent of known amphibians, 12 percent of known birds and 70 percent of known plants. The populations of some critically endangered species number in the hundreds, not thousands.
In an effort to help guide rescue efforts, Traill and colleagues, who include conservation biologists and a geneticist, have been exploring minimum viable population size over the past few years. Previously they completed a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies considering such estimates and concluded that a minimum head count of more than a few thousand individuals would be needed to achieve a viable population.
“We don’t have the time and resources to attend to finding thresholds for all threatened species, thus the need for a generalization that can be implemented across taxa to prevent extinction,” Traill says.
In their most recent research they used computer models to simulate what population numbers would be required to achieve long-term persistence for 1,198 different species. A minimum population of 500 could guard against inbreeding, they conclude. But for a shot at truly long-term, evolutionary success, 5,000 is the most parsimonious number, with some species likely to hit the sweet spot with slightly less or slightly more.
“The practical implications are simply that we’re not doing enough, and that many existing targets will not suffice,” Traill says, noting that many conservation programs may inadvertently be managing protected populations for extinction by settling for lower population goals.
The prospect that one number, give or take a few, would equal the minimum viable population across taxa doesn’t seem likely to Steven Beissinger, a conservation biologist at the University of California at Berkeley.
“I can’t imagine 5,000 being a meaningful number for both Alabama beach mice and the California condors. They are such different organisms,” Beissinger says.
Many variables must be considered when assessing the population needs of a given threatened species, he says. “This issue really has to do with threats more than stochastic demography. Take the same rates of reproduction and survival and put them in a healthy environment and your minimum population would be different than in an environment of excess predation, loss of habitat or effects from invasive species.”
But, Beissinger says, Traill’s group is correct for thinking that conservation biologists don’t always have enough empirically based standards to guide conservation efforts or to obtain support for those efforts from policy makers.
“One of the positive things here is that we do need some clear standards. It might not be establishing a required number of individuals. But it could be clearer policy guidelines for acceptable risks and for how many years into the future can we accept a level of risk,” Beissinger says. “Policy people do want that kind of guidance.”
Traill sees policy implications in his group’s conclusions. Having a numerical threshold could add more precision to specific conservation efforts, he says, including stabs at reversing the habitat decline or human harvesting that threaten a given species.
“We need to restore once-abundant populations to the minimum threshold,” Traill says. “In many cases it will make more economic and conservation sense to abandon hopeless-case species in favor of greater returns elsewhere.