If your goal is to protect species variety (biodiversity), it helps to have a fine-grained picture. A map showing data for an area 100 by 100 kilometers tells you some useful things about the state of population. But it might miss an awful lot.
"Such a coarse scale of analyzing the data causes many problems," says Clinton Jenkins, a research scholar at North Carolina State. "For instance, a grid cell 100 kilometers across could include multiple Andean Mountain ranges within Colombia, yet we know many species occur only at one or another range, and often only at particular elevations within the mountains."
Jenkins produced these maps, which are about 100-times more fine-grained than normal. They show the diversity (number of species) for mammals, amphibians and birds, across the world. The highest concentrations (red and yellow) are mostly in the tropics. Higher latitudes and deserts are blue, indicating lower numbers of species.
Jenkins hopes the maps will help improve decision-making on the ground. "When our analyses are at crude scales, they are of little guidance for regional decision-making, where people are often trying to decide which area of tens of square kilometers is to gain protection," he says.
"As conservation scientists, we really need to be aiming our science at the scales most useful for conservation actions, which is sometimes not the scale at which more academic biological studies may want to focus."
His recent research has looked at how well these maps correlate with current conservation. And the answer is—not very well. Jenkins reckons conservation efforts should focus more on the Andes.
"Andean species tend to have much smaller distributions, which makes it far easier to push them toward extinction," he says. "That is not to say protecting the Amazon is not important. But in comparison of where conservation forces should act to save species from the irreversible fate of extinction, the Andes is clearly the more important place."