An international team of scientists have completed the ‘atlas of life’ – the first global review and map of every vertebrate on Earth.

Led by researchers at the University of Oxford and Tel Aviv University, with contribution from the University of Lincoln, the 39 scientists have produced a catalogue and atlas of the world’s reptiles.

Tropiocolotes naterreri Simon
Tropiocolotes naterreri Simon

Maps showing the habitats of almost all birds, mammals and amphibians have been completed since 2006, but it was widely thought that many reptile species were too poorly known to be mapped. By linking this atlas with existing maps for birds, mammals and amphibians, the team has found many new areas where conservation action is vital.

Scientists have now produced the new reptile atlas, which covers more than 10,000 species of snakes, lizards and turtles/tortoises. The data completes the world map of 31,000 species of humanity’s closest relatives, including around 5,000 mammals, 10,000 birds and 6,000 frogs and salamanders.

The map has revealed unexpected trends and regions of biodiversity fragility. They include the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, inland arid southern Africa, the Asian steppes, the central Australian deserts; the Brazilian caatinga scrubland, and the high southern Andes. The findings have been published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Dr Daniel Pincheira-Donoso, an Evolutionary Biologist in the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, said: “After nearly ten years working as part of an international initiative to complete the atlas of living reptiles, we have been able to establish how the patterns of vertebrate global biodiversity are organised. We have then been able to proceed with analyses covering pretty much every single species of mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile in nature so that we can investigate the extent to which existing conservation schemes protect the stability of these organisms.

“Our work makes an important contribution to advancing the work that scientists around the world have already been doing to make informed decisions about areas of conservation priority and the allocation of funds, among other major modern challenges.”

Lead author Dr Uri Roll, now of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, said: “Lizards especially tend to have weird distributions and often like hot and dry places, so many of the newly identified conservation priority areas are in drylands and deserts. These don’t tend to be priorities for birds or mammals, so we couldn’t have guessed them in advance.”

The maps have allowed conservationists to ask whether environmental efforts to date have been invested in the right way, and how they could be used most effectively.

Dr Richard Grenyer, Associate Professor in Biodiversity and Biogeography at Oxford University, added: “Thanks to tools like our atlas, scientists can for the first time look at the terrestrial Earth in its entirety, and make informed decisions about how to use conservation funding. This is not to say that the work done to date has been inaccurate: based on our knowledge at the time, conservationists have often made some really good decisions. But now conservation has the data and tools required to bring planning up to the same level as the businesses and governments who might have an eye on land for other uses. Maybe we’re actually a bit better, and we’re doing it in the open.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are currently classifying the species featured in the map with a rating, from “critically endangered” to “least concern”. Once this work is complete, the interactive resource will be freely available for public access and use.

Its creation will allow a range of stakeholders, from countries, to conservation organisations, businesses and individuals, to understand the biodiversity in their surrounding environment, its importance and crucially, what they can do to better protect it.

Professor Shai Meiri from Tel Aviv University, who first planned the project more than ten years ago, explained: “Mapping the distributions of all reptiles was considered too difficult to tackle. But thanks to a team of experts on the lizards and snakes of some of the most poorly known regions of the world we managed to achieve this, and hopefully contribute to the conservation of these often elusive vertebrates that suffer from persecution and prejudice.”