New Map of Earth's Animals

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Alfred Russell Wallace was beaten to the punch in describing evolution by Charles Darwin, but Wallace’s contributions to biology have been just as long-lived. Wallace drew a map of the Earth divided into regions by where animals live. Now, his map is evolving too, with an update including a total of more than 20,000 mammals, birds and amphibians.

"Our study is a long overdue update of one of the most fundamental maps in natural sciences. For the first time since Wallace’s attempt we are finally able to provide a broad description of the natural world based on incredibly detailed information for thousands of vertebrate species,” said co-lead-author, Ben Holt of the University of Copenhagen, in a press release.

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The global map data can be used to make regional maps on a smaller scale, not just the planetary scale shown above.The data can even be fed into Google Earth or a Geographic Information System program, the authors noted in the study published in Science Express.

The planetary map was divided into 11 realms, such as Neotropical and Sino-Japanese, and subdivided into 20 "zoogeograghic" regions. The unusual creatures of Madagascar got their own realm. Overall, the map data shows greater biological diversity in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern. Currently, only mammals, birds and amphibians are represented. Other classes of animals will be added as the data becomes available.

The new map made use of resources barely imaginable in Wallace’s time. Genetic analysis helped to define species in the modern map along with the classical anatomical descriptions Wallace used. It took 15 researchers and 20 years of data compilation to update Wallace’s original magnum opus of biological geography.

Developing a map of where species live may prove invaluable as a changing global climate, habitat loss and invasive species are rearranging animals’ home ranges.

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“The map provides important baseline information for future ecological and evolutionary research. It also has major conservation significance in light of the on-going biodiversity crisis and global environmental change. Whereas conservation planners have been identifying priority areas based on the uniqueness of species found in a given place, we can now begin to define conservation priorities based on millions of years of evolutionary history,” said Jean-Philippe Lessard, the other co-lead-author, of McGill University, Canada, in a press release.

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The new global map of biogeography (CREDIT: Science Journal AAAS.)