An increasing amount of biodiversity data has become available worldwide. Yet, we clearly lack data on groups of little-known organisms in the intertropical zone, which is richest in biodiversity.

The intertropical zone suffers from a clear lack of data on many species. Here, a pelican flies over Pacific waters near Buenaventura, Colombia, in September 2020. (Photo: Luis ROBAYO / AFP)
The intertropical zone suffers from a clear lack of data on many species. Here, a pelican flies over Pacific waters near Buenaventura, Colombia, in September 2020. (Photo: Luis ROBAYO / AFP)

On September 23, prior to the launch of the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, the insurance group Swiss Re revealed that “over half (55%) of global GDP, equal to USD 41.7 trillion, is dependent on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services.” In other words, half of the world’s wealth will be affected in one way or another if degradation of biodiversity continues. Yet, the insurer adds, “a staggering fifth of countries globally (20%) are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to a decline in biodiversity and related beneficial services.”

How was it possible to make this observation? To build its analyses, Swiss Re made use of a large number of international data sets, including those of the Biodiversity Integrity Index (which itself depends on a broad range of raw biodiversity data).

A raw biodiversity data record corresponds to an observation of a living organism localized in time and space, ideally with GPS coordinates. It provides evidence of the presence of a species at a location at a given time. This fundamental data record does not result from calculations: it is based only on an individual’s identification of the species. This makes it potentially usable in any estimation of the state of biodiversity.



These raw data are usually the result of naturalist field inventories. Data can be collected in various ways within this framework. In most cases, they are the result of visual observations or auditory contact. However, they can also be obtained through recordings (camera traps in the case of large animals or ultrasound detectors for bats) or through sampling (environmental DNA for aquatic organisms).


Biodiversity data vital for change

IPBES is a platform of scientific expertise on biological diversity under the aegis of the United Nations (the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC). In May 2019, it published an alarming assessment of the state of biodiversity. It is calling on all sectors of the economy to engage in transformative changes to reduce the pressures responsible for the unprecedented degradation of biodiversity.

But in order to make significant and long-term investments that change these pressures on biodiversity, companies need assessments of their business or supply chain footprints, impact assessments, and operating plans that mitigate their impacts. They may also need programs for post-operation restoration or even compensation. This work requires accurate and complete data on the environment and on the biodiversity exploited or impacted.

In fact, the international community and the countries that are home to sites rich in biodiversity have developed protective regulations and criteria for sustainable investment over the past 30 years. Both industry and local businesses must comply with those regulations and criteria. And that’s especially the case if they borrow from financial institutions such as the International Finance Corporation, which has developed a set of performance standards that acts as a reference for most other international donors.

To reduce the costs of these studies and improve their quality, it’s important that biodiversity data be easily accessible and that data sets be spread over as long a period as possible. The policy framework for this already exists, as the Convention on Biological Diversity explicitly encourages its members to facilitate exchange of information and focuses attention on developing countries.


Open data sharing via GBIF

Over the past twenty years, a remarkable global effort has been made to archive raw biodiversity data and make them accessible. A great number of open data platforms have emerged as a result. The portal of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) has undertaken to bring together the data resulting from these various initiatives.

GBIF provides access to 1.6 billion occurrence records covering 1.6 million species names from 54,000 datasets worldwide. Its aim is to provide open access to data on all types of organisms on earth to everyone, everywhere. The raw biodiversity data published in the database can be freely searched, selected, and downloaded. It brings together multiple sources, ranging from museum specimens from the 18th and 19th centuries to geo-referenced photographs shared by amateur naturalists using their smartphones.

Any producer of raw biodiversity data can apply for permission to contribute their data to GBIF. Once the contributor has been approved as a publisher to GBIF, the latter agrees to share its data, while retaining control of it.


Significant lack of data from the intertropical zone

However, distribution of data is not uniform across taxonomic groups or geographical areas. There is a lack of data from the intertropical zone and for many species. For example, in the intertropical zone 68% of occurrences are birds, 15% plants and 11% invertebrates, while mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and fungi each account for 1%. These proportions do not reflect the actual distribution of these species in the zone, which hosts the bulk of biodiversity and which is where the major biodiversity conservation issues occur. This phenomenon is illustrated by comparing the two maps below.



Above, the heat map of the GBIF portal: the reddest areas are the regions that have the greatest amount of raw biodiversity data. This data distribution does not reflect the distribution of areas below risk of ecosystem service degradation, shown in red on the map at right, designed by the Swiss Re Institute.



GBIF has launched several initiatives to try to fill this gap. For example, the Biodiversity Information for Development program has increased the number of datasets from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Ocean islands by nearly 1,200%, by adding approximately 1.2 million new records to GBIF between 2016 and 2019.

There is still a long way to go before the data gap in the intertropical region is filled. Yet, the situation could easily be improved if all data publishers helped, starting tomorrow, by sharing their data using the GBIF platform. This is a historic opportunity for all data publishers to take the plunge, as the new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is going to be negotiated at the next Conference of the Parties on Biodiversity in China at the end of 2021. The year 2021 could then truly become the year of knowledge sharing on biodiversity.



Maheva Bagard-Laursen (Programme Coordinator at GBIF), Régine Vignes Lebbe (Scientific Coordinator at GBIF France) and Philippe Grandcolas (Research Director at CNRS) also contributed to this article.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!