Reference state and benchmark concepts for better biodiversity conservation in contemporary ecosystems

Megan J. McNellie*, Ian Oliver, Josh Dorrough, Simon Ferrier, Graeme Newell, Philip Gibbons

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    46 Citations (Scopus)


    Measuring the status and trends of biodiversity is critical for making informed decisions about the conservation, management or restoration of species, habitats and ecosystems. Defining the reference state against which status and change are measured is essential. Typically, reference states describe historical conditions, yet historical conditions are challenging to quantify, may be difficult to falsify, and may no longer be an attainable target in a contemporary ecosystem. We have constructed a conceptual framework to help inform thinking and discussion around the philosophical underpinnings of reference states and guide their application. We characterize currently recognized historical reference states and describe them as Pre-Human, Indigenous Cultural, Pre-Intensification and Hybrid-Historical. We extend the conceptual framework to include contemporary reference states as an alternative theoretical perspective. The contemporary reference state framework is a major conceptual shift that focuses on current ecological patterns and identifies areas with higher biodiversity values relative to other locations within the same ecosystem, regardless of the disturbance history. We acknowledge that past processes play an essential role in driving contemporary patterns of diversity. The specific context for which we design the contemporary conceptual frame is underpinned by an overarching goal—to maximize biodiversity conservation and restoration outcomes in existing ecosystems. The contemporary reference state framework can account for the inherent differences in the diversity of biodiversity values (e.g. native species richness, habitat complexity) across spatial scales, communities and ecosystems. In contrast to historical reference states, contemporary references states are measurable and falsifiable. This ‘road map of reference states’ offers perspective needed to define and assess the status and trends in biodiversity and habitats. We demonstrate the contemporary reference state concept with an example from south-eastern Australia. Our framework provides a tractable way for policy-makers and practitioners to navigate biodiversity assessments to maximize conservation and restoration outcomes in contemporary ecosystems.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)6702-6714
    Number of pages13
    JournalGlobal Change Biology
    Issue number12
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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