Biodiversity Science ›› 2017, Vol. 25 ›› Issue (4): 355-363.doi: 10.17520/biods.2017037


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Biodiversity science and macroecology in the era of big data

Jian Zhang*()   

  1. School of Ecological and Environmental Sciences, East China Normal University, Shanghai 200241
  • Received:2017-02-15 Accepted:2017-04-07 Online:2017-04-20
  • Zhang Jian

High-quality biodiversity data are the scientific basis for understanding the origin and maintenance of biodiversity and dealing with its extinction risk. Currently, we identify at least seven knowledge shortfalls or gaps in biodiversity science, including the lack of knowledge on species descriptions, species geographic distributions, species abundance and population dynamics, evolutional history, functional traits, interactions between species and the abiotic environment, and biotic interactions. The arrival of the current era of big data offers a potential solution to address these shortfalls. Big data mining and its applications have recently become the frontier of biodiversity science and macroecology. It is a challenge for ecologists to utilize and effectively analyze the ever-growing quantity of biodiversity data. In this paper, I review several biodiversity-related studies over global, continental, and regional scales, and demonstrate how big data approaches are used to address biodiversity questions. These examples include forest cover changes, conservation ecology, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and the effect of climate change on biodiversity. Furthermore, I summarize the current challenges facing biodiversity data collection, data processing and data analysis, and discuss potential applications of big data approaches in the fields of biodiversity science and macroecology.

Key words: big data science, conservation biology, biodiversity informatics, macrosystems ecology, citizen science

Fig. 1

The number of papers between 2008 and 2016 using “big data” as the topic in the Web of Science Core database"

Table 1

Definitions for seven main shortfalls (or gaps) of current biodiversity knowledge (Adopted from Hortal et al, 2015)"

Knowledge shortfalls
Aspect of biodiversity
物种 Species 缺乏对世界上很多现存和已灭绝物种描述的知识。Lack of knowledge about the description of most of living and extinct species on Earth. Brown & Lomolino, 1998; Brito, 2010
Wallacean shortfall 地理分布
Geographic distribution
缺乏有关大多数物种在各个时间尺度上的地理分布的知识。Lack of knowledge about the geographic distribution of most species at all scales most of the time. Lomolino, 2004
Prestonian shortfall 种群 Populations 缺乏在时空尺度上的物种多度和种群动态的知识。Lack of knowledge about species abundance and population dynamics in space and time. Cardoso et al, 2011
Darwinian shortfall 进化 Evolution 缺乏关于生命之树以及物种和它们的性状进化的信息。Lack of knowledge about the tree of life and the evolution of species and their traits. Diniz-Filho et al, 2013
Raunkiaeran shortfall 功能性状和生态功能
Functional traits and
ecological functions
缺乏物种的性状及其生态功能的知识。Lack of knowledge about species’ traits and their ecological functions. Hortal et al, 2015
Hutchinsonian shortfall 非生物耐性因子
Abiotic tolerances
缺乏物种如何应对和忍耐非生物因子的知识。Lack of knowledge about the responses and tolerances of species to abiotic conditions. Cardoso et al, 2011
Eltonian shortfall 生态的相互作用
Ecological interactions
缺乏物种相互作用及其影响个体存活和适合度的知识。Lack of knowledge on species’ interactions and these interactions’ effects on individual survival and fitness. Hortal et al, 2015
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