English is considered the language of international science. But our new research reveals how important scientific knowledge in other languages is going untapped. This oversight squanders opportunities to help improve the plight of the one million species facing extinction.
We reviewed almost 420,000 peer-reviewed papers on biodiversity conservation, published in 16 languages other than English. Many non-English-language papers provided evidence on the effectiveness of conservation measures, but they are often not disseminated to the wider scientific community.
History shows many valuable scientific breakthroughs were originally published in a language other than English. The structure of a Nobel Prize–winning antimalarial drug was first published in 1977 in simplified Chinese, as were many of the earliest papers on COVID-19.
Evidence-based conservation is crucial for tackling the Earth’s biodiversity crisis. Our research shows more effort is needed to transcend language barriers in science, maximising scientific contributions to conservation and helping save life on this planet.
Most scientists speak English as a first or second language. And many academic reward programs are skewed towards getting published in international English-language journals.
But important evidence in biodiversity conservation is routinely generated by field conservationists and scientists who are less fluent in English. They often prefer publishing work in their first language – which for many, is not English.
More than one-third of scientific documents on biodiversity conservation are published in languages other than English. However, such knowledge is rarely used at the international level.
Take, for example, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Analysis of the IPBES biodiversity assessment reports has found 96% of references cited are written in English.
Clearly, tackling any global challenge, including the biodiversity crisis, hinges on tapping into the best available knowledge, whichever language it’s produced in. Our translatE project aims to overcome the language barriers to improve this information flow.
As part of the project, we screened 419,679 peer-reviewed papers published in 16 non-English languages between 1888 and 2020 across a wide range of fields. These spanned biodiversity, ecology, conservation biology, forestry and agricultural science, to name a few.
We found 1,234 papers across the 16 non-English languages that provided evidence on the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation interventions. To put this in perspective, the Conservation Evidence database, which documents global research into the effectiveness of conservation actions, holds 4,412 English-language papers.
The rate of publication of relevant studies is increasing over years in six non-English languages: French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and simplified Chinese.
Among the non-English-language studies we found were a Spanish study on alleviating conflicts between livestock farmers and endangered Andean mountain cats in northern Patagonia, and a Japanese study on the relocation of endangered Blakiston’s fish owls.
Such findings might have valuable insights for human-nature conflicts and threatened bird management in other parts of the world.
Most English-language evidence on what works in conservation relates to Europe and North America. In some highly biodiverse regions where conservation is needed most, such as Latin America, evidence is desperately lacking.
Research in languages other than English is especially common in regions where English-language studies are scarce, such as Latin America, Russia and East Asia (see figure below).
Many non-English studies also involve species for which studies in English are few or non-existent. Incorporating non-English studies would expand scientific knowledge into 12-25% more geographic areas and 5-32% more species.
Tapping global knowledge
Making the best use of non-English-language science can be a quick, cost-effective way to fill gaps in English-language science.
Our research recommends more effort to synthesise non-English-language studies, and making this knowledge available in English so it can be disseminated to a global audience.
And research projects should seek to involve native speakers of different languages. For our research, we worked with 62 collaborators who, collectively, are native speakers of 17 languages.
To have the best chance of halting Earth’s extinction crisis, we must harness the skills, experience and knowledge of people from around the world.
We also urge wider disciplines to reassess the untapped potential of non-English science to address other global challenges.
In a study of crayfish in the Current River in southeastern Missouri, researchers discovered – almost by chance – that the virile crayfish, Faxonius virilis, was interbreeding with a native crayfish, potentially altering the native’s genetics, life history and ecology. Reported in the journal Aquatic Invasions, the study highlights the difficulty of detecting some of the consequences of biological invasions, the researchers say.
The discovery of a foraging rusty patched bumble bee stalled construction on an expansion project at the Chicago Rockford International Airport — but only for a while. Environmental advocates want the delay to be permanent. They say the project would destroy one of the last remnants of the state’s original prairie.
IFAD’s second Biodiversity Advantage report showcases five IFAD projects which highlight the integral importance of biodiversity in agriculture.
These projects show how promoting biodiversity improves human and ecosystem health, and the roles of small-scale agricultural producers in preserving and restoring biodiversity and schemes that reward them for their stewardship of healthy natural environments.
And so “the Blob,” as oceanographers have dubbed this huge body of warm water, was born.
Interestingly, a number of species moved northward to places along the west coast of the U.S. where the water had previously been too cold for them.
We are a marine evolutionary biologist and a marine ecologist, and are currently studying these recent arrivals to the northern California coast. Through our work, we hope to understand what has allowed species to not only move with the Blob, but persist after the water cooled.
The Blob was not destined to last forever. It eventually faded away and water temperatures returned to normal.
Many species that arrived with the Blob didn’t stay within the colder northern waters once the heatwave passed. For example, open water species like the common dolphin followed the warm waters north, then migrated back southward once waters cooled. But many coastal species are sessile – meaning they are stuck to rocks for all their adult lives. But these species are not attached to rocks when they are young. During the early larval stages, they ride ocean currents and can travel dozens of miles to find new coastlines to live on.
The Blob’s warm waters and shifting currents allowed the larvae of many species to move far past their northern boundaries while remaining in their environmental comfort zone. However, when the marine heatwave ended, the real survival test began.
Ourteam has been tracking these northern coastal populations to see which species have persisted post-Blob. Each year our team returns to the cold, wave-pounded northern California shores to monitor existing populations and look for new recruits – young individuals that survived their larval stage and successfully settled on rocks.
Every year we are excited to find new barnacle, snail and slug recruits. Of the 37 coastal species our team has been tracking, at least five have maintained small but stable northern populations after the warm waters of the Blob disappeared.
Who goes from northern tourist to local?
In addition to monitoring populations, our team is also gathering ecological and evolutionary information about these species. The giant owl limpet is one of the species that has persisted, and we want to identify what traits helped them survive after the Blob ended.
In general, traits that help a species settle in a new environment include the ability to grow and reproduce faster, choose suitable habitats, defend territories or have more offspring. To test some of these ideas, our team is conducting ecological experiments along the California coast, and we are annually recording growth for more than 2,500 individual limpets. We are also experimentally pitting juvenile owl limpets against larger adults and other competing limpet species. We hope that this work will reveal whether the new limpets on the block can grow rapidly while competing with others.
But the ecology is only half of the range expansion story. In tandem with the ecological experiments, our lab is sequencing owl limpet genomes to identify genes that potentially code for traits like faster growth or competitive prowess. It’s possible to figure out on a genetic level what is allowing certain species to survive.
Research shows that marine heatwaves are becoming more common thanks to climate change. By understanding the ecological and evolutionary attributes that allowed some species to endure and even thrive during and after the Blob, we may be able to predict what will allow species to expand further during future marine heatwaves.
The Blob 2.0 is coming; what changes will it bring?
A two-year, $500,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation will allow a team of data scientists and ecologists to use eBird data to explore a new way to track pollinator health and biodiversity.
The project allows the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to devise a new method of tracking the health of the all-important arthropod populations that are a part of pollinating one out of every three bites of food people eat – and it all starts with birds.