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If you can’t save everything, how do you choose?

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If you can’t save all the endangered species in the world, which ones do you choose? It’s not an easy question for conservationists, but they do have a way to answer it: choose species with the most diverse traits. To do that, they’ve relied on picking species with diverse genetic lineages. But that’s taking a chance — a “phylogenetic gambit” that diversity in evolutionary history, or phylogenic diversity, translates to diversity in traits, or functional diversity. Does that gambit pay off? “It’s a risky proxy,” said Florent Mazel, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia and lead author on a study in Nature Communications looking at how well phylogenic diversity stands in for functional diversity. The idea can get abstract, but its core is simple. If you have, say, a mouse, a rat and an elephant, Mazel said, and you can only save two of them, which two do you save? Well, the elephant is a given, because its traits are so distinct from the mouse and the rat. “When we talk about maximizing diversity, it’s about taking species far apart on the tree of life,” he said. He and a group of colleagues from Canada, the United States, [...]

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