The climate is set to change at an unprecedented rate, and an estimated 40% of African’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. Should average temperatures continue to increase, species will either need to move to more suitable areas or respond adaptively to avoid extinction, which requires a large amount of genetic variation. Therefore, a greater emphasis must be placed on protecting regions with adaptive genetic variation. Maximizing this variation will expand biodiversity resilience by increasing the chances that populations will adapt and survive.
The rainforests of the Congo Basin are the second largest in the world, comprising 1.4 million square miles in Central Africa. Globally, they are one of the most important centers of biological diversity, harboring one out of every ten species on the planet, including iconic species like the African forest elephant, lowland gorilla, and the okapi. The region is also estimated to sequester over 60 billion metric tons of carbon. Estimates suggest that average temperatures in some parts of the Congo Basin could increase by as much more than 2°C. This means that some species will need to evolve as much this century years as they did in the previous 16,000 years. Those that can’t are at risk for extinction.
This project will work to protect the Congo Basin’s enormous biodiversity from anthropogenic climate change by generating predictive maps of how adaptive responses could occur in order to better plan conservation actions. Using maps generated from these analyses for Cameroon and Gabon, climate models have already been used successfully in workshops with governmental decision makers and NGOs for conservation planning in both countries. The use of predictive maps by decision makers has been shown globally to be a key component of successful land conservation, but more detail is needed.
In this project, led by UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute, DNA samples will be collected for nine target species across multiple sites. Using genomic analyses, genetic variation within species will be characterized and mapped. First, the relationship between current environmental variation and within-species genetic variability will be determined, and this information will then be translated spatially to visualize where environmental changes across the landscape will support genome changes. This process can accurately predict the regions where species are most vulnerable to climate change and where new protected areas can be created that will be resilient to future climate changes, helping to ensure species survival.
In 2012, with funding from the US National Science Foundation, a group of 40 collaborating scientists from 25 international and African universities and research institutions carried out a five-year project to develop an integrated plan for conserving Central African biodiversity under climate change that was both informed by evolution and grounded in the socioeconomic constraints of the region. Focusing on Cameroon and Gabon, the project successfully:
- mapped environmentally-associated genomic and phenotypic variation in a broad range of species (e.g., plants, insects, birds, mammals) to identify areas where species capacity to adapt was greatest;
- evaluated how evolutionary adaptation, phenotypic plasticity and landscape connectivity might mediate future threats;
- developed and integrated prioritization maps that ranked candidate areas for protection on their evolutionary potential, connectivity, estimated socioeconomic costs, and degree of threat;
- held a series of workshops in Cameroon and Gabon where we presented our results and priority maps to conservation decision makers to assist them in planning for new protected areas that will be better buffered from the effects of climate change.
Decision makers are now using these maps for conservation planning in Cameroon and Gabon. This represents one of the first times this approach has been used anywhere in the world. Leveraging knowledge from the work in Cameroon and Gabon, this approach will be expanded to encompass most of the Congo Basin by adding the countries of Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2015, UCLA and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) joined together to create the Congo Basin Institute, as a permanent, multidisciplinary enterprise. The Congo Basin Institute leverages institutional and international partners at its in Yaounde, Cameroon, to create sustainable and innovative programs. The result is that some of the world’s best scientists and development professionals are working together to find solutions to the challenges of the region, including food and water security, loss of biodiversity, climate change and human health.
If you are interested in supporting this project please use the form to the right to submit an inquiry.