Coronavirus update: ‘Loss of habitat causing zoonotic outbreaks’, finds study

Published on Mar 28, 2020 03:07 AM IST

Covid-19 update: Because of loss of their “niche” habitat, many wild species’ capacity to evolve is threatened. The global protected area network—forests or other ecosystems protected under law, don’t cover the environmental or climatic conditions required by a majority of 19,937 vertebrate species assessed in the study.

(Parveen Kumar/HT File Photo)
(Parveen Kumar/HT File Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

A new study has found that the capacity of a majority of wild species to adapt to environmental changes is threatened because of loss of habitat. The findings are crucial because scientists are trying to unravel how the SARS-CoV-2 may have jumped from bats (most likely reservoir of the virus according to latest research) to humans and several scientists have flagged the role of habitat loss behind zoonotic outbreaks.

The study, published in Nature journal on Wednesday, says that many wild species need to adapt to survive.

But because of loss of their “niche” habitat, their capacity to evolve is threatened. The global protected area network—forests or other ecosystems protected under law, don’t cover the environmental or climatic conditions required by a majority of 19,937 vertebrate species assessed in the study.

For example, the representation of niche habitat in the protected areas globally is inadequate for 93.1% of amphibian; 89.5% of bird and 90.9% of terrestrial mammal species, the study has said. An ecological niche is the role a certain species plays in its environment.

The climatic conditions of that place determine how well the species can survive but their capacity to adapt diminishes when they are not connected with their niche.

Inger Anderson, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) tweeted on Wednesday spelling out how pandemics and habitat loss are linked. “Our priority is to prevent spread of Covid 19. In long term it’s important to tackle habitat, biodiversity loss. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from animals to people.”

The reason for such alarming habitat loss, the study says, is because international conservation policies have neglected considering niche habitats of species when setting targets for expansion of protected areas.

The authors from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Brisbane, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science in UK and Global Mammal Assessment Programme at the University of Rome, among others, have assessed the representation or coverage of various climatic niches of nearly 2000 species by protected areas globally by overlaying maps.

“We found that existing protected areas are not adequate for conserving habitats that promote evolutionary processes. Later this year, signatories of the Convention on Biodiversity are meeting again to shape conservation policies for the coming decade—providing a golden opportunity to improve protection of such habitats,” Jeffrey Hanson, co-author of the study wrote, explaining the research paper in Nature. The study also flagged that immune response of many species are affected due to loss of habitat but did not link it with disease outbreaks.

The team identified priority areas for expanding the protected area network globally to include niches of species. These priority areas stretch over 33.8% of the earth’s land and inland water area compared to 17%, which is the present target under the Convention of Biological Diversity.

Some of the priority areas for conservation include the tropical Andes—where steep environmental gradients and complex topographies have driven evolutionary processes; Cape floristic region and Madagascar; Himalayas, an evolutionary epicentre for bird species .

“In a previous study on six different populations of the Giant Panda in China, variations in genes related to the immune system, unique to each population, were found. The destruction of habitat that supports any of these populations will result in the loss of those adaptive genes and, consequently, can be detrimental to the survival of the species,” explained Kartik Sunagar, assistant professor at Evolutionary Venomics Lab, which is part of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

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