Deserts among many biodiversity ‘hot spots’ in California, UC Berkeley study finds

Jepson Herbarium Slide Collection/Courtesy

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Dry desert regions are among many important centers for plant biodiversity in the state, UC Berkeley researchers found in a study published in October.

According to co-author Brent Mishler, campus professor and director of University and Jepson Herbaria, the team of professors, students and staff discovered new centers of biodiversity that had not previously been thought to be important, such as Death Valley and the White Mountains.  Mishler said the study pinpointed areas with plant species unique to that geographical location, which is a ecological phenomenon known as “endemism.”   

Specifically, the researchers used a “quantitative measure of degree of geographic restriction,according to co-author Bruce Baldwin, campus biology professor and curator of the Jepson Herbarium.

Mishler said the study used a new research method that measured phylogenetic endemism. The goal of this new method is to take the evolutionary relationships between organisms into account, instead of simply counting the number of species in an area.

“This is a new method that we wanted to apply to California flora as a test case,” Mishler said. “This is a new approach to assessing biodiversity anywhere. We are using it as an example.”

Mishler said the study used a “big data approach” as well. The study pulled information from the collection of preserved California plant specimens within the campus’s Jepson Herbarium, which holds millions of records indicating where plants exist in the state. He said the team also gathered genetic data from GenBank, a National Institutes of Health genetic data repository.

Baldwin said the study was funded by a grant given by the National Science Foundation in 2014 to research diversity and endemism in California plant life.

Baldwin said that during their research, the researchers were able to get a finer estimate of where hot spots of diversity exist around the state, such as the San Francisco Peninsula.

The research, which campus researchers have been working on for more than three years, is not finished yet. Mishler said they plan to take the information found in the study and present it to the state of California as a list of priorities for conservation. He said the list will inform policymakers regarding which centers are most important to concentrate on and protect.

Baldwin said he hopes the research will inspire further conservation efforts.

“California is one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots,” Baldwin said. “California has one of the most endangered floras in the world. We need this type of data in order to plan responsibly for the future. We need to make sure we aren’t overlooking areas of conservation concern.”

Contact Ella Colbert at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @colbert_ella.