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Protecting Biodiversity, One Pool of Water at a Time

Researchers in Mauritania propose protections for tiny mountain ponds as a way to re-think conservation. Their study, however, will likely attract some criticism.
Camels in the Guelta d'Archei in Chad. (Photo: Dario Menasce/Wikimedia Commons)

Camels in the Guelta d'Archei in Chad. (Photo: Dario Menasce/Wikimedia Commons)

Driven in part by climate change, the world is experiencing a dramatic loss of species that could destabilize the world's ecosystems and threaten human health. It's no surprise then that scientists are thinking about ways to preserve biodiversity. Some of those protection efforts have focused on areas tens or hundreds of thousands of square miles in size, but a new study suggests a different approach: identifying and protecting individual areas as small as a typical United States home.

Conservationists are already well aware that Earth's number of species is in sharp decline, but with resources tight, some argue, conservation should focus on biodiversity "hot spots," such as the California Floristic Province, where efforts might get the biggest bang for the buck. That hot-spot thinking has come under fire, however, for oversimplifying the problem and for its disproportionate emphasis on just a few regions around the world, likely at the expense of others.

"Gueltas are special places and are disproportionately important for their tiny size," and their biological importance to North Africa makes them "deserving [of] global attention," despite their minuscule footprints.

Something like that could be true in the deserts of North Africa, argue Cândida Gomes Vale, Stuart Pimm, and José Carlos Brito in a paper published last week in the journal PLoS One. Though no one seems quite sure what biodiversity is like in such places, no one's really looked much either.

"The common perception of deserts and arid regions is that they constitute remote areas of low diversity when compared to other biomes," the trio write. "In fact, the world’s largest warm desert, the Sahara, together with the neighbouring arid Sahel, have patchily distributed species and a relatively high number of endemics," that is, species common throughout a region.

That observation led the team to examine gueltas, small mountain pools in otherwise arid land, to see whether they might be hot spots for biodiversity, albeit small ones. Gueltas range in size from about 1,000 square feet to perhaps an acre—another reason, perhaps, they've not been paid much attention from conservationists.

An analysis of 69 gueltas in the mountains of Mauritania suggests that they deserve more study. Although those pools totaled just 43 hectares—less than half of one ten-thousandth of a percent of the nation's one million square kilometers—they were home to 59 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, representing 32 percent of all species in Mauritania. Seventy-eight percent of the country's endemic species were present as well, meaning that gueltas are particularly diverse areas. Unfortunately, nearly all of those gueltas were threatened by drought, pollution, or other less-than-natural causes.

"Gueltas are special places and are disproportionately important for their tiny size," Vale, Pimm, and Brito write, and their biological importance to North Africa—not to mention their importance to the people who live around them—makes them "deserving [of] global attention," despite their minuscule footprints.

Even if that attention comes, however, there's likely to be more debate: The researchers suggest prioritizing some gueltas over others in order to balance conservation with the needs of local communities—and that act of protecting some at the expense of others is exactly what bothers critics of the hot-spot approach.