Biodiversity damage mapped by global land-use study

Agricultural land use change in the DariƩn, Panama. Photo: JPW Scharlemann

Human activities are causing global declines in local ecosystems, according to a major collaborative study led by the University of Sussex and the Natural History Museum. 

Human-driven land-use change has caused a 13.6% decline in the number of plant and animal species in ecosystems over the past few centuries, and the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural land or urban areas is thought to have the largest impact, say the scientists in this week’s Nature

What’s more, most of the loss has come in the past 100 years and further losses are expected this century but may be avoidable if suitable mitigation plans are put into action, the scientists add. 

The study by scientists from the University of Sussex, Natural History Museum, United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), and other universities, collated over 1.1 million records for over 26,000 species from every continent, and combined these with land-use-change data, to provide the most complete picture yet of the effects of land-use by humans from 1500 until the present day. 

The team, led jointly by Dr Jörn Scharlemann, Reader in Ecology and Conservation at the University of Sussex, and Professor Andy Purvis (Natural History Museum), projects substantial biodiversity losses to occur within the next 100 years if patterns of land use follow the current ‘business-as-usual’ trajectory. 

In this scenario, biodiverse and economically poor countries are expected to suffer the greatest losses. However, the projections show that these losses can be avoided and reversed if concerted action and the right societal choices are taken. 

“Detailed understanding of humanity’s past impacts on local ecosystems is essential to help us reduce or undo likely future impacts on the planet. It is in our hands to ensure the survival of the Earth’s ecosystems on which human survival ultimately depends,” said Dr Scharlemann. 

Researchers found that the worst-affected areas had lost one in three of their species, enough to substantially impact the functioning of those environments. 

Professor Purvis added:  “These findings are a significant milestone in understanding our impact on the planet. They show that what happens next is completely down to us. If we carry on as we are, numbers of species will fall by another 3% on average by 2100. But if society takes concerted action, and reduces climate change by valuing forests properly, then we can undo the last 50 years of damage to biodiversity on land, and still have a chance of keeping climate change below 2°C.” 

The sustainability of human life on Earth has attracted enormous attention around the world, and this continues to grow as more states seek to develop rapidly on a planet with finite space and resources. 

The University of Sussex is home to a unique constellation of researchers working across all aspects of global sustainability, ranging from biological through physical and environmental, to sociological, geopolitical and legal. 

The School of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex also has particular strengths in bee ecology and conservation, and researchers contributed data particularly on bees to the global dataset used in these analyses. 

Now, the University is poised to make a substantial investment for a global multidisciplinary sustainability hub, building on distinctive Sussex strengths in sustainability research and policy engagement, to address complex socio-economic, technical and environmental challenges and enhance problem-focused research across natural and social sciences. 

Notes for editors 

University of Sussex press office contacts: James Hakner and Jacqui Bealing –, 01273 678888.

“The global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity” is published in the journal Nature at 18:00 GMT on 1 April 2015 

  • The University of Sussex is among the leading research universities in the UK, with 98 per cent of its research rated as world leading, internationally excellent or internationally recognised (REF 2014). 
  • The University has counted among its faculty three Nobel Prize winners, 13 Fellows of the Royal Society, six Fellows of the British Academy and a winner of the prestigious Crafoord Prize.
  • The Natural History Museum welcomes more than five million visitors a year and is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling the biggest challenges facing the world today. It helps enable food security, eradicate disease and manage resource scarcity. It is studying the diversity of life and the delicate balance of ecosystems to ensure the survival of our planet. For more information go to
  • The United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is the specialist biodiversity assessment centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the world’s foremost intergovernmental environmental organisation.  The Centre has been in operation for over 30 years, combining scientific research with practical policy advice.
  • Universities involved in this research paper include; University of Sussex, University College London, Imperial College London, and University of Swansea.
  • Additional research bodies include; Microsoft Research and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
  • This work was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
  • Localised data (e.g., country-level estimates of biodiversity losses to date) are available upon request.

By: James Hakner
Last updated: Wednesday, 1 April 2015