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    Apple revival: how science is bringing historic varieties back to life

    Hundreds of apple varieties once popular in the United States have disappeared.Credit: Leah Choi for Nature

    When Jude Schuenemeyer picked the apple up off the ground in December 2017, he wondered whether his two-decade search was over. It was a firm winter apple, orange in colour with a distinctive ribbed shape and wider than it was tall. “We knew right away that we had never seen it before,” Schuenemeyer says.He and his wife, Addie, started the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project in 2008 to find and revive endangered heirloom apple varieties. The horticulturalists, based in Cortez, Colorado, had made a few discoveries, but there was one coveted variety that had eluded them: the Colorado Orange. Once a popular apple in the western United States, it had essentially disappeared by 1900. And although the Schuenemeyers had chased a few false leads in the past, this apple — from an almost-dead tree on a private piece of land near Cañon City — looked promising.Months of careful consultation followed. The couple compared the specimen with the US Department of Agriculture’s pomological watercolour collection of some 7,000 historical fruit images as well as with century-old wax apple models stored at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Their search paid off — the Colorado Orange apple had survived and could possibly be preserved.Today, a young sapling grafted from the tree in Cañon City is growing in a unique research orchard on the outskirts of Boulder. It was planted alongside 30 or so trees, resurrected from old, unvisited spaces — abandoned homesteads, overgrown fields and hidden canyons. Some came from trees growing in places where no one would expect an apple tree to grow.
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    Amy Dunbar-Wallis, a plant ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder has been collecting these lost or half-forgotten apples in the hope of finding genetic variants that will unlock the flavour and texture profile of the next blockbuster fruit1. Apple-conservation efforts are continuing in other parts of the world and the specimens that they are reviving reflect the cultural and ecological history of their place in the world.The genes might also encode traits that make the trees more resistant to disease, climate change and other environmental pressures. These genes could then be incorporated into other apple varieties through careful breeding strategies or potentially through genetic engineering.“They might have really great gene variants,” says Cameron Peace, a fruit geneticist at Washington State University in Pullman. Peace has been working with Dunbar-Wallis and others to catalogue the apple genes that contribute to traits such as cold hardiness, heat tolerance, flavour and aroma. And as they wait for the saplings — each now around 5 feet tall — to bear fruit, the effort to find out what makes these varieties unique has already begun.The road to domesticationAll cultivated varieties (or cultivars) of eating apple belong to the same species, Malus domestica. Currently, there are around 7,500 recognized cultivars worldwide. Some are well-known: Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp to name a few. But at the end of the short list of widely marketed varieties is a much longer list of obscure apples. Each has its own distinct origins and characteristics, some of which go back centuries. Pippins, Spys, Russets and Smiths. All are different.The flesh of the Autumn Glory, named in 2011 in Washington state, for example, imparts a subtle cinnamon flavour. The Winter Banana (Indiana, 1876), has a taste reminiscent of its incomparable tropical namesake. The skin of the Bloody Ploughman (Carse of Gowrie, UK, around 1800) is so darkly empurpled that it looks almost black. And in 1785, when the Pitmaston Pineapple was introduced in Worcester, UK, most of the locals had probably never even seen the fruit after which it was named.“Apples are wildly heterozygous,” says Dunbar-Wallis, which is to say that many apple genes have variants that can produce drastically different characteristics. This presents a challenge for cultivation. To bear fruit, apple trees must cross-pollinate. They must rely on insects — typically bees — to transport pollen from a flower on one tree to a flower on another. Although the genes (and traits) of the borne fruit match the plant on which they grow, the seeds in the apples contain a random mixture of the parents’ genomes.“Say you had an apple for lunch, and you planted eight seeds from that apple,” says Dunbar-Wallis. From the trees that would result, “you’re going to get eight very different tasting fruits”.

    Amy Dunbar-Wallis wants to revive old forgotten apple cultivars.Credit: Leah Choi for Nature

    This is why apple growers propagate apples by grafting a flowering branch from a specific cultivar to the rootstock of another tree, rather than planting seeds. The resulting limbs, leaves and fruit are all genetic clones of the tree from which they were grafted. It’s a process that dates back thousands of years, to when apples spread across central Asia westward along the Silk Road to Europe.But without careful and constant maintenance, things can quickly unravel for the cultivars. Apple trees have an average lifespan of 80–140 years. So without human involvement, all known apple varieties would be gone in just a few centuries. In the United States, people have also intentionally reduced the list of commercially available varieties to those with attributes that benefit mass production, casting away hundreds of lesser-known regional varieties. The main winner of this winnowing down was Red Delicious, a juggernaut of an apple.Ruby red, with an easily stackable shape, a long shelf life and a tough skin that protects the fruit against damage, Red Delicious became the quintessential US apple, part of every school lunchbox and a staple in cafeterias and supermarkets. Between 1968 and 2018, it was by far the most widely grown cultivar in the United States. In the 1980s, Red Delicious accounted for around 75% of the apple crop in Washington state, the country’s top grower of apples.
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    Dunbar-Wallis calls the popularity of Red Delicious a product of 1950s US food culture. “It’s just like getting canned vegetables,” she says. Convenient, but not very good: “It’s so mealy.”Since the late 1990s, growers have begun to replace Red Delicious with other cultivars. ‘Big Red’ was overtaken by Gala in 2018; in 2023 Honeycrisp hurtled into third place and is rapidly closing the gap.But many of the thousands of varieties that once grew in the western United States and elsewhere are in danger of disappearing. Jude Schuenemeyer has compiled a list of around 500 old varieties from Colorado alone. “Half are extinct,” he says. When the Schuenemeyers and others find an old tree growing an unfamiliar fruit, the race begins to see if they can revive another heirloom. One of the first steps is identifying the variety.Apple IDFor a long time the only way to identify a cultivar was to show the fruit and leaves to someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of apples. This person — known as a phenotyper — can identify a cultivar from its observable characteristics, or phenotype. They might look at the pre-bloom colour of the flower; or the distribution of russeting (brown patches) on the skin of the fruit. In other words, someone must read the fruit. This is imperfect.“We found that even our most knowledgeable phenotypers can be wrong,” says Dunbar-Wallis. That is why she relies on geneticists such as Peace to read the DNA of specimens in her collection instead. Before her apple trees even bear fruit, she can get a reasonable idea of, not just of what cultivar they are, but what characteristics the fruits might have, by sending a sample of its fresh green leaves to Peace.The apple genome contains 750 million letters, or nucleotides. That’s not particularly long, says Etienne Bucher, a plant scientist at Agroscope, an agricultural research centre in Bern, who led the team that first sequenced the apple genome2, in 2017.For reference, the human genome is about 4 times the size of the apple genome, the wheat genome is more than 20 times larger.But apples are particularly interesting, Bucher says, because there are so many genetic mutants. There are about 25 million known single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs): letter changes at a single point on the genome. These genetic variations — along with less common mutations, such as deletions and duplications — can differentiate a Golden Delicious from, say, a Kentucky Longstem or a Bascombe Mystery.

    Dunbar-Wallis leads a community education event for the Boulder Apple Tree Project.Credit: Leah Choi for Nature

    By comparing the SNPs, researchers can begin to chart the relationships between two cultivars, says Sean Myles, a plant geneticist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. “You’d be able to tell whether an apple was a parent or a sibling of Golden Delicious, and in some cases even further relationships — a first cousin, a second cousin and so on.”As well as constructing detailed family trees, researchers can run a comparison known as a genome-wide association study (GWAS), comparing multiple apple genomes at once to determine which SNPs are linked to particular traits.“One classic example is Gala,” says Bucher. Although all Gala apples are essentially clones, some boast an intense red colour, others are yellow, or mottled or striped. These differences come from rare random mutations that have accumulated over the years. Sequence and compare their genomes, says Bucher, “and you can find the genetic change that is responsible for the colour difference”.Using this and other approaches, researchers have begun to identify the genes involved in traits such as ripening period, apple quality and flesh browning. In 2021, a group led by Liao Liao, a plant scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, identified several candidate genes for manipulating the taste of apples3. By conducting a GWAS of nearly 500 apple varieties, they identified around 6,000 SNPs associated with the relative concentration of compounds such as malate, citrate, fructose, sucrose, glucose and sorbitol, all of which contribute to an apple’s flavour and its crucial ratio of sugar to acid.These are the sorts of findings that interest Peace, and they are the reason that he genotypes apple trees. Peace processes thousands of leaf clippings at his laboratory in Pullman through a service called MyFruitTree. They come in bulk from commercial growers, but also in singletons and pairs from hobbyists and curious landowners who have found a mystery tree. The simple test, which costs US$50, targets 48 SNPs across the apple genome, allowing Peace to identify specific cultivars and provide limited information about some fruit traits. A more costly test gives much more detail and provides genetic information that can help in the development of new cultivars.
    Old trees have much to teach us
    Modern apple breeders often make new cultivars by rolling the genetic dice, over and over again, cross-breeding different plants in search of the perfect combination of SNPs, and then growing the offspring until they produce apples. “You need to have thousands to find something that has the potential to become a new commercial cultivar,” Peace says.These were the steps that led to Honeycrisp in 1991, Cosmic Crisp in 1997 and RubyFrost in 2013. But it’s a lengthy process, taking at least 25 years from the first cross-breeding to the moment an apple is placed on supermarket shelves.Genetic engineering could potentially speed up this process. But so far, only a couple of genetically transformed apples have been approved for sale in the United States, says James Luby, an apple breeder at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul. Luby is referring to varieties of the Arctic apple, which have an engineered gene that produces RNA designed to silence the production of enzymes that cause browning in apple flesh. When sliced, they seem to stay fresher for longer. But the modifications to create them didn’t use traits from other existing cultivars.To borrow or blend traits through genetic engineering requires deep knowledge of existing variation, Luby says. “The first part of gene editing is gene. You need to know what your target is,” he says.Peace is particularly interested in the trees growing in Dunbar-Wallis’s test orchard for that reason. “Many of them have already contributed to modern cultivars,” says Peace. “They’re their parents, grandparents and great grandparents; they’re the ancestors of existing cultivars.”

    Trees grafted from heirloom varieties should produce fruit in the next several years.Credit: Leah Choi for Nature

    Varieties such as the Colorado Orange, which have been almost entirely lost for a century, would have had less of a chance than other, more widely grown varieties to contribute their genetic information. But there’s a reason that a Colorado Orange tree survived long enough for the Schuenemeyers to rediscover it. The tree has overcome drought and extreme weather — and decades of neglect. The same is true for some of the other historic cultivars that Dunbar-Wallis has resurrected.Susan Brown, a plant breeder at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, offers a note of caution. “I love heirloom apples,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to eat Thomas Jefferson’s favourite apple?” But she says that heirloom varieties have been known to harbour pathogens. “Let’s make sure if we’re going to put a lot of interest and emphasis on heirlooms, that they’re free of virus,” she says.Brown’s concerns are valid, says Dunbar-Wallis. “There is a strong need and opportunity to further study what pathogens are present and where they are located nationally,” she says. And, she adds, some of the old regional cultivars are more resistant to disease and pests than varieties that were introduced more recently.Fruit of the futureThe young trees in Dunbar-Wallis’s test orchard stand in tidy rows, like fence posts against the low, brown foothills of the Colorado Rockies to the west. Their fruits could help to safeguard the future of apples while also preserving and restoring their past.When an unknown apple variety disappears, the world it leaves behind is diminished in ways that are difficult to quantify. Apple trees don’t just materialize: humans plant them, often purposefully, and sometimes by accident. In their own way, these heirloom apple trees tell the story of the United States. The early settlers, who brought apples with them. The westward expansion. The California Gold Rush. And then later, the mass production of food.
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    Inevitably, the cultivars best suited for the future might have existed and disappeared already — Jude Schuenemeyer is certain that some of them have. But perhaps Dunbar-Wallis has found others just in time, grafted them to sturdy rootstock and planted them in northeast Boulder. In the past few weeks, she says, she’s sent off a backlog of 600 tissue samples to Peace for genotyping.She already knows the identities of some of the apples that will grow on her trees. They have historic names, such as Ben Davis and Early Strawberry. And some of the trees are mysteries — such as seedling BATP 498, named after the Boulder Apple Tree Project, a multi-institution research and education outreach group that supports the project. Its fruit will have no name, for now.These varieties have value, says Bucher. “Modern genetic engineering can be very useful,” he says, “but it cannot be done without the information we get from wild species.”Dunbar-Wallis checks on her Colorado Orange sapling, inspecting the undersides of its leaves and pondering its history. The tree from which it was cloned survived for more than a century in Cañon City. “It was really an old, old apple that we thought we weren’t ever going to see again,” she says.Fruit won’t appear on its branches for a couple more years — but that’s just a moment in apple time — and Dunbar-Wallis is sure that it will be worth the wait. More

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    Australia’s feral horses need ‘urgent’ control: scientists welcome latest report

    Australia’s feral horses are a danger to species already deemed at risk of extinction.Credit: Brook Mitchell/Getty

    Ecologists are welcoming recommendations from the Australian Senate to strengthen legal protections for wildlife threatened by feral horses in the Australian Alps, where they are harming vulnerable species and a unique and delicate ecosystem.Many scientists say that culling feral horses (Equus caballus) is necessary to prevent environmental damage and the extinction of species. But conflicting state and federal government laws have allowed the growth of a 25,000-strong population of feral horses across the Australian Alps region in southeast Australia, including within designated national parks. “If feral horse populations are not urgently managed, there is a real risk of losing this unique landscape and the native species that call it home,” the report states. It was released on 13 October by the senate standing committee on environment and communications, who began an inquiry on the impact of feral horses in February.The guidance includes a recommendation to recognize the threat that feral horses pose as a ‘key threatening process’ in the national Environment Biodiversity and Conservation Act (1999). It also calls for additional monitoring and assessment of the damage that feral horses are causing, and the resumption of aerial shooting of feral horses in New South Wales (NSW), where the method is currently banned. The recommendations mark the first time that the federal government has weighed in on the issue.Urgent action required“I am extremely pleased to see the senate recommend that the federal government needs to take urgent action on a whole range of fronts to try to undo the ecological disaster that feral horses have been allowed to become,” says Don Driscoll, an ecologist at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He adds that the recommended boost to funding for better management of the problem is “among the most important” of the recommendations.
    Australian scientists call for ‘feral horse’ culls in alpine national park
    But some ecologists and policy experts say the recommendations don’t go far enough. Thomas Newsome, an environmental scientist at the University of Sydney, Australia, says that while the report acknowledges the urgency of the situatiuon, “many of the recommendations and steps will take a considerable amount of time to achieve”, especially given the proposed changes to legislation. Improvements “on the ground” will require considerable effort and a willingness to fast-track the key recommendations, he adds.Sarah Clement, an environmental policy researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, says that it is unclear whether adding feral horses to the national list of key threatening processes will make any difference to management. Such listings “haven’t been used in many cases to date to trigger action”, she says. “It’s not clear if or how they would here.” She also notes that horse are in fact already included in the key threatening processes list under ‘novel biota and their impact on biodiversity’.Soaring populationsEuropeans introduced horses to Australia in the late eighteenth century. But feral horse numbers in the Australian Alps — which stretches across NSW, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in the southeast of the country — have soared over the past two decades.That is increasing pressure on the delicate alpine ecosystem, where flora and fauna did not evolve to withstand the presence of large, hard-hoofed herbivores. “There are areas that should be lush with tall tussock grasses and streams,” says Driscoll, who has studied the effects of the feral horses in the Alps1. Now, these areas look like heavily grazed paddocks.“We have to act on this now. Because the problem is rapidly getting much, much worse,” says Christopher Johnson, a conservation biologist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia.
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    Feral horses are a danger to 12 of 14 species of vertebrate already deemed at risk of extinction in the Alps, including the northern and sourthern corroboree frogs (Pseudophryne pengilleyi and P. corroboree), the alpine she-oak skink (Cyclodomorphus praealtus) and four species of Galaxias fish. “Horses might be the thing that makes them finally go extinct,” says Johnson, who is also a member of the national threatened species scientific committee.But some community groups, as well as a dissenting report by senators of the conservative coalition government, maintain that wild horses — known locally as brumbies — have roamed the region for decades and belong there as a part of Australia’s cultural heritage. NSW’s Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act, passed in 2018, requires horses to be protected at a sustainable level.In additional comments tabled in the report, David Pocock, the independent senator for the ACT who instigated the inquiry, called for the repeal of the Act, which he says presents “the biggest threat to the Australian Alps”. He also recommended that NSW and Victoria adopt the ACT government’s “zero-tolerance” approach to feral horse management.

    Some Australians think of ‘brumbies’ as part of the national heritage.Credit: William West/AFP via Getty

    Management mismatchIn Australia, most national parks are controlled by state and territory governments. So far, the management of feral horse populations has been left to them, despite the federal government being responsible for stopping invasive species and protecting vulnerable ones.The ACT has eliminated feral horses from its national parks, killing horses that stray in from NSW, and rangers in Victoria’s national parks, which have around 6,000 horses, have reduced numbers by capturing and rehoming the animals, or by shooting them on the ground. But in NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park, control methods have been inadequate, especially in its inaccessible northern areas. The park counted 18,000 horses in 2022, the largest number and highest density in the Alps and a huge increase from the 2,000 counted in 2003.A state management plan put it in place in 2021 required Kosciuszko National Park to reduce numbers to 3,000 by 2027. But modelling obtained by the Invasive Species Council, a charity in Katoomba, Australia, estimates that this reduction would require the removal of almost 6,000 horses per year. The park is currently removing just 1,000 horses a year — meaning that the population could hit 33,000 by 2027.The latest guidance from the federal government is non-binding. But scientists and conservationists hope that it will spur stronger, more unified action across the states to stop the damage caused by the horses, and pave the way for strengthened federal legislation to limit the spread of invasive species and prevent the extinction of native flora and fauna.Aerial cullingScientists are applauding the report’s recommendation that NSW’s wild horse management plan be updated to allow horses to be shot at from helicopters. NSW banned the practice after an incident in 2000 when a horse was found injured but alive five days after an aerial cull.Many researchers say that aerial culling is the best tool available for controlling horse numbers. In the vast, rugged landscape of the Alps, measures such as ground shooting or trapping and removal are less effective and too expensive, says Jack Gough, advocacy manager at the Invasive Species Council. “The horses are in such high numbers and they’re in places that are hard to get to,” adds Driscoll. A study on the effectiveness of sterilizing female horses found that it would take between 10 and 20 years for horse numbers to fall2.
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    Aerial shooting is used to control horses and camels in Central Australia, as well as feral deer in NSW, notes Newsome. A 2017 study of aerial shooting of horses and camels in Central Australia found that most horses died instantly3. Even before today’s guidance was announced, NSW was considering allowing aerial shooting of feral horses.Community support for aerial shooting is crucial, says David Berman, an ecologist at the University of Southern Queensland who served on the scientific advisory panel for the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Management plan. Without broad support, he adds, there could be another backlash against the horse cull, which could jeopardise the use of aerial shooting of horses elsewhere in Australia. “It could be a disaster,” he says.Some scientists say that the latest guidance is just the beginning of what now needs to happen. Gough says that NSW’s Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act should be repealed so that horses can be controlled more aggressively.But he says that “unless aerial shooting is approved by [NSW Environment Minister Penny] Sharpe, and federal [Environment] Minister [Tanya] Plibersek is prepared to stump up serious funding, all this talk will not make a difference to the rapidly rising feral horse population.” More

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    Reproducibility trial: 246 biologists get different results from same data sets

    Scientists who ran separate analyses on a single data set about the effect of grass cover on Eucalyptus seedlings arrived at vastly different answers.Credit: Laurence Dutton/Getty

    In a massive exercise to examine reproducibility, more than 200 biologists analysed the same sets of ecological data — and got widely divergent results. The first sweeping study1 of its kind in ecology demonstrates how much results in the field can vary, not because of differences in the environment, but because of scientists’ analytical choices.“There can be a tendency to treat individual papers’ findings as definitive,” says Hannah Fraser, an ecology meta researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a co-author of the study. But the results show that “we really can’t be relying on any individual result or any individual study to tell us the whole story”.
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    Variation in results might not be surprising, but quantifying that variation in a formal study could catalyse a larger movement to improve reproducibility, says Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia, who has driven discussions about reproducibility in the social sciences.“This paper may help to consolidate what is a relatively small, reform-minded community in ecology and evolutionary biology into a much bigger movement, in the same way as the reproducibility project that we did in psychology,” he says. It would be hard “for many in this field to not recognize the profound implications of this result for their work”.The study was published as a preprint on 4 October. The results have not yet been peer reviewed.Replication studies’ rootsThe ‘many analysts’ method was pioneered by psychologists and social scientists in the mid-2010s, as they grew increasingly aware of results in the field that could not be replicated. Such work gives multiple researchers the same data and the same research questions. The authors can then compare how decisions made after data collection affect the types of result that eventually make it into publications.The study by Fraser and her colleagues brings the many-analyst method to ecology. The researchers gave scientist-participants one of two data sets and an accompanying research question: either “To what extent is the growth of nestling blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) influenced by competition with siblings?” or “How does grass cover influence Eucalyptus spp. seedling recruitment?”
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    Most participants who examined the blue-tit data found that sibling competition negatively affects nestling growth. But they disagreed substantially on the size of the effect.Conclusions about how strongly grass cover affects numbers of Eucalyptus seedlings showed an even wider spread. The study’s authors averaged the effect sizes for these data and found no statistically significant relationship. Most results showed only weak negative or positive effects, but there were outliers: some participants found that grass cover strongly decreased the number of seedlings. Others concluded that it sharply improved seedling count.The authors also simulated the peer-review process by getting another group of scientists to review the participants’ results. The peer reviewers gave poor ratings to the most extreme results in the Eucalyptus analysis but not in the blue tit one. Even after the authors excluded the analyses rated poorly by peer reviewers, the collective results still showed vast variation, says Elliot Gould, an ecological modeller at the University of Melbourne and a co-author of the study.Right versus wrongDespite the wide range of results, none of the answers are wrong, Fraser says. Rather, the spread reflects factors such as participants’ training and how they set sample sizes.So, “how do you know, what is the true result?” Gould asks. Part of the solution could be asking a paper’s authors to lay out the analytical decisions that they made, and the potential caveats of those choices, Gould says.Nosek says ecologists could also use practices common in other fields to show the breadth of potential results for a paper. For example, robustness tests, which are common in economics, require researchers to analyse their data in several ways and assess the amount of variation in the results.But understanding how analytical variation sways results is especially difficult for ecologists because of a complication baked into their discipline. “The foundations of this field are observational,” says Nicole Nelson, an ethnographer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “It’s about sitting back and watching what the natural world throws at you — which is a lot of variation.” More

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    Where is the strongest research focus on the environment?

    High-quality research from scientists in Australia, New Zealand and parts of Scandinavia tends to lean the most heavily towards tackling climate and conservation issues, according to an analysis of data in the Nature Index.Of research published from 2015 to 2022 in 82 natural-science journals tracked by Nature Index, 4.7% of articles align with the four United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are most closely related to climate change and conservation.Some of the leading 25 countries and territories for publishing this research, however, are way ahead of this global average (see ‘Green focus’). The interactive chart shows the proportion (climate and conservation %) of a country or territory’s total Nature Index output (measured by the Nature Index metric Share) that aligns with SDGs on Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life On Land (SDG15).

    Almost one-fifth of Nature Index research published by Norway, for instance, is related to these SDGs, and 14.5% of New Zealand’s output in the database align with the four goals. Finland and Denmark also have a high proportion of their research related to these topics.
    Nature Index 2023 Climate and conservation
    These countries do have a relatively low volume of research output for SDGs 12–15 (as shown by the size of the bubbles), but Australia (10.4%) is notable for having higher output that is also well above the global average.The biggest publishers of high-quality climate and conservation research — the United States and China — are closer to the global average, but fall either side of this line. Japan, meanwhile, is an example of a country with relatively high volume, but well below the average as a proportion of its total Nature Index output.Digging into the data shows how this research breaks down between the four SDGs for each country and territory.The following interactive charts (see ‘Goal specific’) show the proportion of a location’s total climate and conservation output in the Nature Index that relates to each SDG (SDG as proportion of all climate and conservation output), with the size of the bubbles showing the volume (measured by the Nature Index metric Share).

    SDG 13 (Climate Action) tends to represent the greatest proportion of research on the wider topic: globally, 62% of all Nature Index output aligned with SDGs 12 to 15 aligns with SDG 13. The United States and China are both ahead of the average, but many countries in Europe lag behind. India has the highest percentage of its climate and conservation research in SDG 13.Countries with easy access to extensive coastlines are among those with a skew towards SDG 14 (Life Below Water), including Australia, France and the United Kingdom, whereas Brazil, with its research focus on the Amazon rainforest, is an outlier for SDG 15 (Life On Land).SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) tends to represent the smallest proportion of climate and conservation research, but Singapore and Belgium are the furthest ahead of the global average.Data on research articles and their SDG alignment come from Digital Sciences’ Dimensions platform, which uses machine learning to automatically tag research papers if they align to certain SDGs. Some articles are tagged to more than one SDG, so percentages may not add up to 100. More

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    My quest for hidden treasures in Sri Lanka’s flora

    My workspace at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, includes shelves stacked with rare, preserved plant specimens. But I also work in the country’s lush forests, a tropical biodiversity hotspot filled with a trove of indigenous plants. My passion for scouting the forests for herbs escalated in 2016, when I joined the National Herbarium in Kandy, Sri Lanka, as a project assistant for the national botanical survey.I realized that, on my island nation, there are many understudied herb families. I am studying one of these, Piper, for my PhD, collecting samples from the Walankanda forest. In March 2021, a researcher working there sent me photographs of a flower. At first, it seemed to belong to the Zingiberaceae, or the ginger family, but its leafless nature then suggested otherwise. An analysis revealed that this species was a previously uncharacterized terrestrial orchid. In this photo, I’m holding a preserved specimen of it.This orchid is non-photosynthetic and relies entirely on symbiotic fungi for nutrients. It has a three-week flowering period during which the flowers stay in bloom for only three days. This makes it challenging to identify. I relied on an island-wide network of early-career researchers for data collection — their help was crucial to bring this new species to light.I named it Gastrodia pushparaga, after the pushparaga yellow sapphire that is found in my country. Not only because the amber-hued flower, streaked with red, resembles the gemstone, but also because discoveries of indigenous species are precious assets to Sri Lankan biodiversity. This remarkable discovery by a team of young scientists comes at a time when academia in my country is severely challenged by an economic crisis and an exodus of researchers to wealthier countries. With few botanists around to study herb families in Sri Lanka, my goal is to keep unravelling the taxonomies of these plants. More

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    Cichlid fish seized an ecological opportunity to diversify

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    Climate change and habitat loss push amphibians closer to extinction

    04 October 2023

    Amphibians are the most vulnerable vertebrates worldwide, with 41% of species threatened with extinction. Habitat loss is the most common threat, and climate change is the main driver of increased extinction risk. Investment in amphibian conservation must be scaled up drastically and urgently to prevent further extinctions and reverse declines. More

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    Seize the moment: researchers have a rare opportunity to make progress in protecting global biodiversity

    Human activities are driving the Amazon towards the limits of survival.Credit: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

    Earth is at the start of a mass extinction event: estimates show that species are disappearing at 100–1,000 times the rate of naturally occurring extinctions1,2. It will be the sixth such event in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. Unlike the previous five, this one has been precipitated by the actions of one species — humans.The 15th of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the United Nations, which Nature is covering in a special series, aims to reverse this looming crisis on land. SDG 15’s aims are “to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.
    Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals
    As we have already reported in this series, progress towards a similar goal — SDG 14, to protect life below water — is going backwards. SDG 15 is also nowhere near on track. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — an organization similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — reported3 that ecological communities on land have lost more than 20% of their original biodiversity, and that millions of terrestrial species are likely to become extinct by 2100.The greatest driver of this loss is conversion of land on an industrial scale for human use, especially by agribusiness and industry. Every year, human activities are costing the world around 100 million hectares of natural land — and about that much forest was lost between 2000 and 2020.There is a small silver lining: the number of countries that are tracking biodiversity as part of their official statistics has been steadily increasing, one of SDG 15’s targets. Tracking is necessary — but on its own, it is only a partial answer. A bigger issue is that the costs of environmental damage, such as biodiversity loss, rarely factor into countries’ official calculations of income and wealth. If anything, clearing a forest to build housing, grow crops or construct infrastructure to exploit fossil fuels is considered a net economic gain. An analysis of progress towards the 17 SDGs in 99 lower-income nations, published this year, confirms this: gains in reducing poverty and improving human welfare have come at a high price to the environment4. The current system is weighted towards destruction, not preservation. Now is an important moment to make a quiet revolution louder.Margins to mainstreamFor decades, researchers and policymakers have worked painstakingly to integrate environmental indicators more closely with economic ones. Their project, the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), has become the world’s standard for measuring nature’s contribution to the economy and the impact of economic activity on the environment. It was adopted by the UN in 2012, was updated in 2021 and is now in use in 92 countries and rising. The SEEA measures stocks of environmental assets, such as a country’s forest and mineral resources, along with ‘flows’, such as the quantity of water consumed by industry.
    What scientists need to do to accelerate progress on the SDGs
    Most countries report these results in ‘satellite’ accounts, which measure economic sectors that are not considered industries in national accounts. Australia, for instance, publishes a national state of the environment report every five years. Canada publishes annual ecosystem accounts covering 30 variables, from road density to the numbers of people using cultural services. Uganda measures how much land is covered by grasslands, woodlands and commercial farmlands, as well as the extent of suitable habitat for important species, such as the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) and the African cherry (Prunus africana).This hard work has paid off: these data, watched and used by researchers and policymakers in conservation-related fields, are now on the radar of those in finance and economic decision-making roles.The UN Statistics Division, based in New York City, is seeking expert comments on the next revision to the System of National Accounts (SNA). This is the international statistical standard used to measure economic activity — consumer and government spending and investments by businesses. There have been just 3 revisions in the SNA’s 70-year history. Now, questions about how the SNA can account for environmental sustainability, along with well-being, are being considered. If the SEEA and the SNA can be linked more closely, this could lead economic policymakers to pay closer attention to biodiversity loss, climate impacts and other costs. This revision is the chance for researchers and others who care about these issues to have their say (see The deadline is 9 October.Make no mistake, the costs of failing to account for the environment are high, and they are here now — but they are hidden from our daily lives and concerns. A systematic approach to addressing these trade-offs is not the only answer to achieving the SDGs, but it is necessary. Properly resourcing national statistical offices to coordinate environmental accounts is also essential. Those who make economic policy decisions need to see the environmental wealth that is being whittled away as a direct result of those decisions. Only then do we stand even a remote chance of halting the sixth mass extinction event. More