Conservation of protists: is it needed at all?

Cotterill, F. P. D.; Al-Rasheid, Khaled; Foissner, Wilhelm
February 2008
Biodiversity & Conservation;Feb2008, Vol. 17 Issue 2, p427
Academic Journal
Protists have scarcely been considered in traditional perspectives and strategies in environmental management and biodiversity conservation. This is a remarkable omission given that these tiny organisms are highly diverse, and have performed as key ecological players in evolutionary theatres for over a billion years of Earth history. Protists hold key roles in nearly all ecosystems, notably as participants in fluxes of energy and matter through foodwebs that centre on their predation on microbes. In spite of this, they have been largely ignored in conservation issues due to a widespread, naive belief that protists are ubiquitous and cosmopolitanously distributed. Nevertheless, recent research shows that many protists have markedly restricted distributions. These range from palaeoendemics (Gondwanan-Laurasian distribution) to local endemics. Our ignorance about the ultimate and proximate causes of such acute disparities in scale-dependent distributions of protists can be flagged as a singular reason to preserve these more cryptic participants in ecological and evolutionary dynamics. This argument is disturbing when one considers anthropogenic modifications of landscapes and the very poorly understood roles of protists in ecological processes in soils, not least in agroecolandscapes and hydrological systems. Major concerns include host specific symbiotic, symphoric and parasitic species which become extinct, unseen and largely unknown, alongside their metazoan hosts; change or loss of habitats; massive change or loss of type localities; and losses of unique genetic resources and evolutionary potential. These concerns are illustrated by examples to argue that conservation of protists should be integral to any strategy that traditionally targets vascular plants and animals. The ongoing decline in research capacity to inventory and classify protist diversity exemplifies a most acute symptom of the failures, at local, national and international levels, to support scientific responses to the biodiversity crisis. Responsible responses to these severe problems need to centre on the revival of natural history as the core discipline in biology.


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