Communicating change: Biodiversity indicators and global progress for nature | PREDICTS biodiversity team

Emma Soh is a student studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and doing her work placement with the PREDICTS team at the Natural History Museum, focusing on communicating the science of biodiversity to policymakers. She shares how biodiversity indicators are important for communicating the state of nature and tracking global progress towards protecting it.  

What are biodiversity indicators?

Biodiversity indicators are used to monitor, understand, and communicate changes in biodiversity – the variety of life – globally, nationally, or in particular sites. This can include changes in the state of species and ecosystems or the types of threats they are facing.

Biodiversity is highly complex, from the molecular scale of a gene to whole ecological communities, and all the interactions that occur in between. Having a single indicator to capture the state of the whole of biodiversity would be like grading a piece of music on how good it is based only on its melody! Therefore, scientists use more than one indicator, each monitoring a different component of biodiversity. An indicator can measure anything from how likely a species is to go extinct to the impacts of human activities on entire ecosystems.  

Calculating and using different biodiversity indicators can give us a clearer picture of the state of biodiversity without being overwhelmed by the complexity of ecosystems or the massive amount of data surrounding them. Since indicators are based on different types of data and may use different data science techniques and processes, each indicator will have its own strengths and limitations. For example, some indicators measure biodiversity at the global-level, whereas others may focus on specific species or threats.  

Each indicator tells a story about an aspect of biodiversity. It is therefore important to recognise how indicators are different from one another and what each indicator is measuring.

As Dr Neil Brummitt, leader of the Plants Under Pressure research team at the Museum, puts it, “Different indicators all [measure] slightly different things, but [they are] all informative…Drill down into the data: What is the geographical coverage? What is its taxonomic scope (i.e. the type of species included)? What timescale is it over? What is it that they’re doing?”.

Having a clear understanding of what each indicator is saying and using multiple indicators alongside one another can help us gain a more holistic picture of the state of biodiversity.  

Why are biodiversity indicators important?

Indicators help us to understand ecosystems and appreciate the diversity of the natural world around us, as well as understand how biodiversity is changing in response to threats. From the impacts of global warming, to the loss of natural habitats for farming, biodiversity is facing an uncertain future that will inevitably affect us all – humans rely on biodiversity and nature for our survival.

Indicators can not only be used to monitor these threats and impacts on biodiversity, but they can also track changes over time and help us to plan for the future.  

The United Nations General Assembly in New York, USA. The UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 will gather world leaders in Montreal, Canada to discuss biodiversity issues and global action to protect biodiversity. Image Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Indicators are especially important when we set out global goals and targets for biodiversity and conservation. Biodiversity indicators form an essential part of global monitoring frameworks, such as measuring progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework by the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be negotiated and finalised at the second part of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal in December 2022.

Good targets need to be measurable, and that requires biodiversity indicators. Indicators can be used to track progress towards – or away from – global targets over time and inform global action. It is therefore important for policymakers to understand goals for biodiversity and how indicators can be used to monitor our progress.  

Communicating research – indicators for change in the Museum

Scientists at the Museum work to understand and monitor the state of biodiversity, both by gathering biodiversity data and by improving biodiversity indicators. My science communication work placement is with the PREDICTS research team, working on communicating the science of biodiversity indicators to policymakers. The PREDICTS database contains biodiversity data from terrestrial ecosystems across the world, and researchers in the team use models to understand the impacts of human activities on biodiversity.

These impacts can be seen with the Biodiversity Intactness Index , which estimates the percentage of the original number of species that remain and their abundance in an area. Meanwhile, scientists in the Plants Under Pressure team are improving our understanding of plant biodiversity and threats to plants.

One of their projects aims to get a clearer picture of extinction risk in plants. They do this by studying a representative set of plant species across all major taxonomic groups, leading the production of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants to track the overall extinction risk of plants. The two indices tell us about two different aspects of biodiversity, with the Biodiversity Intactness Index showing changes in the composition and abundance of species, while the Sampled Red List Index for Plants focuses on the global risk of plant extinction.  

In the lead-up to COP15, as countries re-establish global goals for our planet’s biodiversity, making biodiversity research accessible to policymakers is crucial. This can be through providing channels and platforms for people involved in policy to explore indicators and be informed of biodiversity trends.

One of the Museum’s newest initiatives is the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, a free, interactive, online tool to track changes in the Biodiversity Intactness Index, showing change across time periods, different geographic regions, and even forecasting future changes under different trajectories of human development. Having the Biodiversity Trends Explorer as a platform to communicate biodiversity data in a visual and accessible manner represents a step towards making policymakers aware of the valuable work of scientists at the Museum, and how it can be used to understand the state of biodiversity and make more evidence-informed decisions.

The Museum has more plans for the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, and part of my placement has been to write website text in preparation for the addition of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants onto the platform.  

Speaking to lots of people at the Museum, from scientists to staff members engaged with policy, has been an eye-opening experience, and has shown me the importance of providing channels for scientists and policymakers to share information, discuss issues, and to work together for the future of biodiversity.

The Museum is continuing to build its vision for policy-engagement through its new policy unit. Emma Woods, the new Director of Policy at the Museum, says “Ultimately, I want the Museum to be impactful and to add value, whether that be through building influential networks, translating evidence into something that will resonate with policymakers, or convening leaders across science, government and business to debate the big issues of our time.”

Biodiversity indicators and tools like the Biodiversity Trends Explorer are exciting means to communicate the science of biodiversity to policymakers and beyond, opening up future pathways of engagement and working towards a future for nature.  

Adapting our training and support for the Big Seaweed Search in Mexico | Community Science

A workshop facilitator and student in a classroom, preserving speciments for a seaweed collection.

In this blog I want to tell you about the amazing work my colleague Ana is doing with our colleagues from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM): Ameyalli, Arely, Carmen and Erika.

For every community science programme we run at the Museum, we provide training and guidance to help people take part. This will be tailored according to the programme and audience. This means that training will sometimes be delivered in person, sometimes we produce written resources, and sometimes we develop video tutorials, for example.

In Mexico, our colleagues delivered training workshops in Sisal and Puerto Morelos in March and April respectively, and have recently returned from delivering workshops in the same locations, but in the rainy season.

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Compromises and trade-offs in adapting the Big Seaweed Search in Mexico | Community Science

A participant in Big Seaweed Search Mexico collecting specimens on the beach from a quadrat square.

Hola! It’s been a busy two months since I last blogged to introduce the Big Seaweed Search (BSS) in Mexico. Today I want to continue by describing the programme that the team has created for BSS in Mexico, highlighting some of the differences with the programme in the UK and discussing some of the compromises and trade-offs we made when adapting the project to a new country.

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Introducing Big Seaweed Search Mexico! | Community Science

I’m Jess Wardlaw, Community Science Programme Developer at the Museum. I’m excited to be working together with my Museum colleagues, Juliet Brodie, Lucy Robinson and Ana Benavides Lahnstein, on a new international partnership project funded by the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers programme.

Alongside partners at the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI) and the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores (ENES) from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Merida, Mexico, we are excited to be taking our Big Seaweed Search community science project to new shorelines…Mexico’s Caribbean and Yucatán coasts, which are part of the Yucatán Peninsula!

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Why biobanking is key to preserving biodiversity | Jacqueline Mackenzie-Dodds, Molecular Collections Facility Manager

Jackie Mackenzie-Dodds (in full cryo-gear!) decanting liquid nitrogen from the Molecular Collection Facility’s LN2 bulk tank. Copyright: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Although estimates of extinction rates vary significantly [1], anywhere from losing hundreds to hundreds of thousands of species each year, it is widely acknowledged that we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Ensuring we deliver a wide range of conservation measures to protect species is key to halting this decline across all taxonomic groups. A growing area of research is focussing on biobanking as an effective way to deliver this. But what does this mean in practice, how does it work and why is it important?

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The Museum at sea | Darwin Tree of Life

One person leans over to collect seaweed on the beach with the sky above full of clouds

Adventuring to the west coast of Scotland in search of DNA

Laura Sivess, Research Assistant for the Darwin Tree of Life project, shares the experience of being on a Museum field trip.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) Darwin Tree of Life (DTOL) team recently returned from Millport, Scotland, where in just over four days we encountered over 150 species and took 266 tissue samples for whole genome sequencing!

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Can biofuels solve the planetary emergency we are facing? | PREDICTS biodiversity team

In this post, masters student Sophie Jane Tudge details her research into biofuels.

Carbon-neutral energy sounds like it is exactly what the world needs right now. With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) almost upon us, more people than ever are asking how we can halt climate change to protect our planet and, ultimately, ourselves. The greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels have led to many countries, including the UK, to make commitments to shift over to renewable energy sources. But renewable energy does not always mean that it is good for the environment. Let’s take a look at one growing form of renewable energy: biofuels. 

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Uncovering the hidden diversity of species in urban areas | Urban Nature Project

A man wearing blue gloves sits hunched over a tray of tubes as he uses a pair of tweezers to place small pieces of insects into each one

Over the past year, the Natural History Museum’s Urban Nature Project team have been working together on a project funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Thanks to money from National Lottery players, we’ve been able to develop and test cutting-edge scientific tools and methods that will help study the natural world in new ways and transform our understanding of urban wildlife across the UK.

In this blog, the Museum’s UK Biodiversity Officer Sam Thomas talks about how we have been working with partners across the UK to better understand and protect urban nature.

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Thanks for taking part in the Plant Club BioBlitz! | Citizen Science

A big thank you to everyone who took part in the Plant Club BioBlitz! Over two weeks we made 725 observations of 313 species across the UK. We had observations from car parks in Portsmouth, pavements in Leeds and London, people’s gardens, and even clifftops in Cornwall and the Outer Hebrides. You can view all our observations on iNaturalist.

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