Biodiversity and Language Diversity Hotspots Overlap & We're Losing Both

© Bruce Beehler/Conservation International
Man in native dress at the celebration of the YUS Conservation Area dedication in the Teptep village, Papua New Guinea.

An interesting new study looks at biodiversity hotspots around the world and compares them to places where there's great language diversity, finding that there's a great deal of overlap between them, as well as significant threats.

The work, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that 70% of the world's languages occur in the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots and in 5 wilderness areas, with a total area less than one-quarter of the Earth's land mass.

As far as the threats, in the hotspots roughly 1553 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and 544 are spoken by less than 1000 people. In the wilderness areas the numbers are roughly similar, with 1251 languages spoken by less than 10,000 people and 657 spoken by less than 1000.

Previous research estimates that by the end of this century 50-90% of all known languages will no longer be spoken.

The areas with highest diversity in languages are the biodiversity hotspots of the East Melanesian islands, the Guinean forests in West Africa, Indo-Burma, Wallacea, and Mesoamerica. The wilderness area with the highest diversity is in New Guinea, where there are 976 languages, with just four endemic to a single place.

Conservation International president and report co-author Dr Russel Mittermeier makes the connection to species loss:

Between eighty and Ninety percent of the WORLD’S critically endangered and endangered terrestrial species are in hotspots, and more than eighty percent of all major violent conflicts since 1950 have been in the hotspots. They overlap the centers of origin and diversity of our most important crop species and remaining natural habitats in the hotspots provide essential ecosystem services for a high percentage of the poorest of the poor. Now we see that a high percentage of the world’s remaining languages and the cultures that speak them are also found in the hotspots. These biodiversity-rich areas are also of high priority for the preservation of these languages and cultures, a large number of which are endemic to these regions and spoken by less than 1,000 people.”

The paper itself concludes:

Although different processes may have given rise to the diversification of languages, cultures, and species in different areas, similar forces currently appear to be driving biological extinctions and cultural/linguistic homogenization. Broad changes in the form of habitat loss because of large-scale human impacts from an expanding industrialized global economy also represent potential risks to languages and their associated cultures [...] Our analysis reveals that for many conservation priorities and languages, efforts to maintain particular biodiversity targets in particular locations could benefit one or more languages in the same place, and vice versa.

Tags: Biodiversity | Conservation