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Georgia Southern University scientist helps with development of conservation map

Georgia Southern University scientist Michelle Zjhra is part of an international team of researchers that has developed a remarkable new road map for finding and protecting the best remaining holdouts for thousands of rare species that live only in Madagascar.

Led by conservation biologists at the University of California at Berkeley, the research team developed a conservation plan that includes lemurs and species of ants, butterflies, frogs, geckos and plants.

An island nation in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is considered one of the most significant biodiversity hot spots in the world. More than 2,300 species that are found only in Madagascar were included in the research team’s analysis, which was published in the April 11 issue of Science.

A diverse group of 22 researchers from museums, zoos, herbaria, universities, non-governmental organizations and industry contributed to the study. They were assisted by an additional 62 non-authored collaborators who were part of much larger research teams that collected the data used in the study.

Zjhra is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Georgia Southern. Her research interest focuses on patterns and processes of plant diversity and spans molecular genetics, floral development, floral odor chemistry, plant-animal interactions, and pollination syndrome evolution.

Zjhra’s work has taken her from the old growth swamps and rivers of Georgia and South Carolina, to the tropical rain forests of Madagascar, to the mountainous rain forests of Vietnam.

For the Madagascar research team, centralizing and analyzing the sheer quantity of the data to develop a map of conservation priorities provided an unprecedented challenge. First, a massive team of researchers collected highly detailed data to learn the exact locations of thousands of animal and plant species across Madagascar.

Using software specially designed for this project in collaboration with a computer science researcher at AT&T, the researchers then estimated the range for each species.

Finally, separate optimization software, customized for this project by researchers at Finland’s Helsinki University, was used to identify which regions are most vital for saving the greatest number of species.

Species that have experienced a proportionally larger loss of habitat due to deforestation were given top priority in the resulting conservation plan because they are at the greatest risk of extinction.

According to some estimates, about half of the world’s plant species and three-quarters of vertebrate species are concentrated in biodiversity hot spots that make up only 2.3 percent of the Earth’s land surface.

A developing country off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar is one of the most treasured regions of biodiversity on the planet. An estimated 80 percent of the animals on the island do not occur naturally anywhere else on Earth.

All species of lemur and half of the world’s chameleons are endemic to Madagascar. They are joined by whole families of plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs that are found only on the island.

In 2003, Madagascar’s government announced an ambitious goal of tripling its existing protected area network from about 5 million acres to 15 million acres, or about 10 percent of the country’s total land surface.

The conservation mapping project was supported by the MacArthur Foundation with a joint grant to UC-Berkeley and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Based in New York, the Wildlife Conservation Society has a staff in Madagascar that is working with government officials to incorporate the results of the study into the country’s conservation policy.

The research team included scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the California Academy of Sciences, the Center for Applied Conservation International in Virginia, the Center for Conservation and Research at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan, the Natural History Museum in England, the REBIOMA Wildlife Conservation Society in Madagascar, the Royal Botanical Gardens in England, the State University of New York, the University of York in England, and the Zoological Institute of the University of Braunschweig in Germany.

Georgia Southern University, a Carnegie Doctoral/Research University, offers more than 120 degree programs serving nearly 17,000 students. Through eight colleges, the University offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs built on more than a century of academic achievement. The University, one of Georgia’s largest, is a top choice of Georgia’s HOPE scholars and is recognized for its student-centered approach to education. Visit: www.georgiasouthern.edu .

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