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The pitfall-trap of species conservation priority setting


To elucidate the factors underlying species conservation priority setting, we analysed the relationships among species’ structural complexity, scientific attention, threatened species listing, and conservation investments at different organisational levels, including global, European, national, and sub-national. Although the literature often highlights the need to consider criteria other than extinction risk status, our results show that an excessive use of Red lists still persists in the setting of conservation priorities. We found that organismal complexity, available scientific information, and species listing combine together to create a positive feed-back loop, in which more complex organisms have a larger proportion of threatened species in the Red lists and legal lists. This bias promotes research that is devoted to understanding conservation problems as well as more funds invested to solve them. We propose that a sort of pitfall-trap is currently constraining the species conservation priority setting, in which few species, mainly threatened and better-known species, tend to receive most of the funds and policy attention. To counteract this pitfall-trap, we highlight the need to increase scientific effort on lower taxa and expand Red lists to assess lesser-known taxonomic groups as well as the need to use other criteria for species conservation prioritisation.

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International Union for Conservation of Nature


National Red Lists


Critically endangered






Near threatened


Least concern


National Catalogue of Threatened Species


Sensitive to habitat change


Of special interest


Birds Directive


Habitat Directive


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Comments from two anonymous reviewers have greatly helped in the revision of this paper.

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Correspondence to Berta Martín-López.

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Martín-López, B., González, J.A. & Montes, C. The pitfall-trap of species conservation priority setting. Biodivers Conserv 20, 663–682 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-010-9973-z

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  • Bias in conservation
  • Conservation priorities
  • Threatened species
  • IUCN Red Lists
  • Conservation legislation
  • Multi-scale analysis
  • Threat status