Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 397–426 | Cite as

Complementarity and the selection of nature reserves: algorithms and the origins of conservation planning, 1980–1995

  • Sahotra SarkarEmail author


This paper reconstructs the history of the introduction and use of iterative algorithms in conservation biology in the 1980s and early 1990s in order to prioritize areas for protection as nature reserves. The importance of these algorithms was that they led to greater economy in spatial extent (“efficiency”) in the selection of areas to represent biological features adequately (that is, to a specified level) compared to older methods of scoring and ranking areas using criteria such as biotic “richness” (the number of features of interest). The development of these algorithms was critical to producing a research program for conservation biology that was distinct from ecology and eventually led to what came to be called systematic conservation planning. Very similar algorithmic approaches were introduced independently in the 1980–1990 period in Australia, South Africa, and (arguably) the United Kingdom. The key rules in these algorithms were the use of rarity and what came to be called complementarity (the number of new or under-represented features in an area relative to those that had already been selected). Because these algorithms were heuristic, they were not guaranteed to produce optimal (most “efficient”) solutions. However, complementarity came to be seen as a principle rather than a rule in an algorithm and its use was also advocated for the former reason. Optimal solutions could be produced by reformulating the reserve selection problem in a mathematical programming formalism and using exact algorithms developed in that context. A dispute over the relevance of full optimality arose and was never resolved. Moreover, exact algorithms could not easily incorporate criteria determining the spatial configuration of networks of selected areas, in contrast to heuristic algorithms. Meanwhile metaheuristic algorithms emerged in the 1990s and came to be seen as a credible more effective alternative to the heuristic algorithms. Ultimately what was important about these developments was that the reserve selection problem came to be viewed a complex optimal decision problem under uncertainty, resource, and other constraints. It was a type of problem that had no antecedent in traditional ecology.


Biodiversity Complementarity Conservation biology, history Reserve design Reserve selection Systematic conservation planning 


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© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Section of Integrative BiologyUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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