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Conservation Biology: Home

Monarch butterfly visits the Main Lawn at NYBG; photo by Marlon Co
Monarch butterfly visits the Main Lawn at NYBG; photo by Marlon Co

The field of conservation biology is relatively new, having been introduced by Bruce Wilcox and Michael E. Soule at a conference held at the University of California, San Diego in 1978. The conference was held to discuss the ongoing, rapid loss of biological diversity throughout the world.  Biological communities, which took millions of years to develop, are being devastated by human activities. Tropical rainforests, coral reefs, temperate forests and other community types are being destroyed. Because of habitat loss, thousands of species are predicted to go extinct in the next few decades. The ongoing, widespread loss of species has been referred to as the sixth mass extinction. However, unlike previous mass extinctions which were caused by events such as volcanic eruptions or asteroids, this one is caused by humans.

Conservation biology is a new, fast emerging discipline which focuses on the science of preserving biological diversity, also called biodiversity. Biodiversity includes the world's vast number of plant and animal species, the genetic variation within each species and the complex range of biological communities around the world. Conservation biology is closely related to various biological sciences such as ecology and management in that they design effective strategies for the sustainable management of populations, species, and entire ecosystems. Because conservation biology is such a wide field there have been many new disciplines created. Conservation genetics, conservation physiology and conservation behavior have all become established because of the increase in conservation efforts.  

Hummingbird in the Perennial Garden at NYBG; photo by Marlon Co

Hummingbird in the Perennial Garden at NYBG; photo by Marlon Co

There are three primary goals of conservation biology:

  • To document the full range of biological diversity on Earth.
  • To investigate human impact on species, communities, and ecosystems.
  • To develop practical approaches to prevent the extinction of species, to maintain genetic variation within species and to protect and restore biological communities and their associated ecosystem functions.

Conservation biologists research demographics, population sizes, genetic variation within populations and migration patterns of species. There are two approaches one can take in conservation. In-situ conservation is the protection of species in their native habitat by either cleaning the surrounding area or by protecting the species from predation. Ex-situ conservation is the protection of species outside of their native habitat, such as in botanical gardens or zoos. Conservation biologists only do ex-situ conservation if in-situ conservation is not possible. On-site research in a species' native range is much more effective than in a botanical garden or zoo, but is not always viable.

There are many threats to biodiversity including climate change, large-scale agriculture, deforestation, overgrazing by livestock or introduced species, urbanization, legal and illegal wildlife trade and the use of pesticides. These threats are all enhanced by the increase in the global human population.

Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen

Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen

Despite the ongoing threats to biodiversity there are many signs which allow conservation biologists to remain cautiously optimistic. The increase in protected land and marine areas as well as an increase in the number of organizations that focus on a wide range of conservation efforts has resulted in the recovery of some species.  People dedicated to the conservation of species are protecting species through research, the monitoring of wildlife habitat and animal populations and by educating local people about species at risk of extinction in their area.The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an international organization that has research stations across the world and is instrumental in preventing the extinction of species. The IUCN updates the conservation status of species annually through the Red List. The Red List provides scientists with a tool to identify the species which are most at risk of becoming extinct.  (There is a link to the Red List in the column to the right.)

The field of conservation biology has grown considerably in the past few decades. Organizations such as the IUCN,  the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Conservation International and the Society for Conservation Biology work all over the world conducting conservation research, restoring environment and protecting endangered species. The increase in the interest for conservation biology around the world is a great sign for conservation efforts.

Cooperative Extension Program

For further information about conservation efforts going on in your state go to the cooperative extensions tab at the top of this page. The cooperative extension program was set up as a way to connect local people with various aspects of agriculture and science in their area.

Photo of bee collecting pollen; photo by Marlon Co
A pollinator at work; photo at NYBG by Marlon Co

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