Wallace’s century-old map of natural world updated

New global map for mammals, birds, amphibians provides important tool for biodiversity research

Until today, a map from 1876 has been the backbone for our understanding of global biodiversity. Thanks to advances in modern technology and data on more than 20,000 species, scientists have now produced a next-generation map depicting the organization of life on Earth. Published online in Science Express, the new map provides fundamental information regarding the diversity of life on our planet and is of major significance for future biodiversity research.

Published: 20 December 2012
An essential question in understanding life on Earth is why species are distributed the way they are across the planet. This new global map shows the division of nature into 11 large biogeographic realms and shows how these areas relate to each other. It is the first study to combine evolutionary and geographical information for all known mammals, birds and amphibians, a total of over 20,000 species. Based on work at the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen involving 15 international researchers and 20 years of data compilation, the study is published today online in Science Express. Co-lead author Jean-Philippe Lessard is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science, based at McGill University in Montreal.

The first attempt to describe the natural world in an evolutionary context was made in 1876 by Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer, along with Charles Darwin, of the theory of natural selection. “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,” says co-lead author Dr. Ben Holt from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.

The new map can be split into finer geographical details for each class of animals. It is made freely available to contribute to a wide range of biological sciences, as well as conservation planning and management of biodiversity.

Lessard, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center in Copenhagen, says: "Our understanding of the current and past distribution of life on Earth has improved tremendously in recent decades, but this new knowledge had yet to be synthesized into a tool all ecologists and evolutionary biologists can use. Our map could help elucidate unanswered questions regarding the origin and maintenance of biological diversity.”

Modern technology such as DNA-sequencing and a compilation of hundreds of thousands of distribution records for mammals, birds and amphibians across the globe made it possible to produce the map.

“The map provides important baseline information for future ecological and evolutionary research. It also has major conservation significance in light of the ongoing biodiversity crisis and global environmental change,” Lessard says. “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.”

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IMAGE: A modern map of the vertebrate world. Researchers have combined information on the distribution and evolutionary relationships of over 20,000 species of amphibians, birds and mammals to identify 11 major global realms.  The colours of the realms reflect the uniqueness of the animals found within then. Realms with similar colours contain very similar species and those with different colours contain very different species. Credit: Journal Science / AAAS

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