Conservation of Phylogenetic Diversity in Madagascar's Largest Endemic Plant Family, Sarcolaenaceae

Anaëlle Soulebeau, Roseli Pellens, Porter P. Lowry II, Xavier Aubriot, Margaret E.K. Evans, and Thomas Haevermans

Abstract Madagascar is renowned for its impressive species richness and high level of endemism, which led to the island being recognized as one of the world's most important biodiversity hotspots. As in many other regions, Madagascar's biodiversity is highly threatened by unsustainable anthropogenic disturbance, leading to widespread habitat loss and degradation. Although the country has significantly expanded its network of protected areas (PAs), current protocols for identifying priority areas are based on traditional measures that could fail to ensure maximal inclusion of the country's biodiversity. In this study, we use Madagascar's largest endemic plant family, Sarcolaenaceae, as a model to identify areas with high diversity and to explore the potential conservation importance of these areas. Using phylogenetic information and species distribution data, we employ three metrics to study geographic patterns of diversity: species richness, Phylogenetic Diversity (PD) and Mean Phylogenetic Diversity (MPD). The distributions of species richness and PD show considerable spatial congruence, with the highest values found in a narrow localized region in the central-northern portion of the eastern humid forest. MPD is comparatively uniform spatially, suggesting that the balanced nature of the phylogenetic tree plays a role in the observed congruence between PD and species richness. The current network of PAs includes a large part of the family's biodiversity, and three PAs (Ankeniheny Zahamena Forest Corridor, the Bongolava Forest Corridor and the Itremo Massif) together contain almost 85 % of the PD. Our results suggest that PD could be a valuable source of complementary information for determining the contribution of Madagascar's existing network of PAs toward protecting the country's biodiversity and for identifying priority areas for the establishment of new parks and reserves.

Keywords Protected areas • Extinction • Endemism • Biodiversity • Species richness


Among the areas identified by biologists and conservationists as biodiversity hotspots (Myers et al. 2000; Myers 2003), Madagascar is one of the most important because of its exceptionally high levels of species diversity and endemism, along with an unprecedented rate of habitat loss due to anthropogenic activities, leading to species extinction (Goodman and Benstead 2005; Callmander et al. 2011; Buerki et al. 2013). Less than 10 % of the original natural habitats present on the island before human colonization are still intact (Myers et al. 2000). Although the conservation of Madagascar's biodiversity is a high priority, the dearth of reliable information for identifying priority sites in need of protection complicates the establishment of a robust national conservation program and policy.

In Madagascar, as in many other regions of the world, species richness and the number of endemic species are the parameters most frequently used to define priorities for biodiversity conservation (Callmander et al. 2007; Kremen et al. 2008). However, as illustrated throughout this book, phylogenetic diversity is another important element that should be taken into consideration, for two main reasons. First, phylogenetic diversity takes into account not only the number of species or endemics in an area but also the evolutionary distinctiveness of those species, such that a site with a legume, an orchid and a fern would be considered to have higher phylogenetic diversity than another site with three species belonging to just one of these groups (Vane-Wright et al. 1991; Faith 1992). Second, measures of phylogenetic diversity are useful in conservation decision-making because extinctions are not random – in many groups where one species is vulnerable, several other related species will tend to be as well. The use of phylogenetic diversity as a criterion in conservation planning thus reduces the risk of losing entire groups or lineages (see Yessoufou and Davies, chapter “Reconsidering the Loss of Evolutionary History: How Does Non-random Extinction Prune the Tree-of-Life?”).

We might then ask to what extent does Madagascar's system of protected areas help protect key features of the biodiversity within a clade, including not only the number of species, but also phylogenetic and ecological diversity. Patterns in biodiversity distribution can vary considerably from one lineage to another, as shown by two recently published studies on the conservation of biodiversity in Madagascar. While Isambert et al. (2011) showed a striking difference in the spatial distribution of the number of endemic species and phylogenetic diversity of adephagan water beetles, Buerki et al. (2015) revealed a strong congruence between species richness and phylogenetic diversity in the plant family Fabaceae.

Here we use Sarcolaenaceae, the largest plant family endemic to Madagascar, as a case study to identify areas of high phylogenetic diversity and to assess whether the current network of protected areas provides adequate conservation of that diversity.

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