Biodiversity Indicators & Conservation Decision-Making

We are currently advertising x3 PhD projects under this research theme, please click here for more details.


Globally, biodiversity is experiencing widespread, rapid decline.  Biodiversity indicators, decision-making and conservation planning are essential tools for managing this decline.  Our research in this space includes the evaluation of global scale biodiversity indicators and the development of tools to support optimal monitoring, environmental decision-making and conservation planning.


Emily Nicholson, Kate Watermeyer, Jess Rowland, Simone Stevenson, Katrina Szetey


Ben Collen (University College London), EJ Milner-Gulland (Imperial College London), Mick McCarthy (QAECO, University of Melbourne), Beth Fulton (CSIRO), Simon Ferrier (CSIRO), Mike Burgass (Imperial College London).

About our research:


Biodiversity indicators: Few existing biodiversity indicators have been subject to rigorous testing, and their ability to detect trends of interest remain poorly understood.  Our lab is working to develop and apply new theory for designing, testing and selecting global biodiversity indicators for use in conservation decisions.  Biodiversity metrics are also used to aggregate data for quantifying the effects of future scenarios and make planning decisions at different scales. See our page on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems for more on indicators, decision making and risk assessment tools specific to ecosystems.

Making conservation decisions under uncertainty: Conservation decisions are inevitably made with incomplete and uncertain data, and based on uncertain models. Better tools and frameworks are therefore needed to understand types and sources of uncertainty, manage it and subsequently improve the robustness of management decisions. This research theme spans across all the others listed – uncertainty is pervasive! Applications include information-gap decision theory, a method developed by Yakov Ben-Haim, and sensitivity analysis for conservation planning and modelling.


Conservation planning:  Systematic conservation planning, also known as spatial conservation prioritization, is a key aspect of our research. Our work in this area includes planning for species persistence, integrating social and biodiversity values, types of biodiversity data, and effects of uncertainty on decisions (see publications below). Current projects include planning for sustainable development and biodiversity on the Tiwi Islands, in collaboration with the Tiwi Land Council to support the Land Council in planning and management decisions. This work is undertaken in collaboration with Brett Murphy and Jane Elith (University of Melbourne), and others.

Projects include:

  • Jess Rowland (PhD student, Deakin) is working to develop new indicators of ecosystem health in association with the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems
  • Simone Stevenson (PhD student, Deakin) is testing a new global indicator being developed by CSIRO to measure loss of gamma and beta diversity; testing terrestrial biodiversity indicators using process-based models of the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem, and applying lessons from economics and other fields to biodiversity indicators (in collaboration with Giovanni Caggiano from Monash University)
  • Mike Burgass (PhD student, ICL) has completed an evaluation of sources of uncertainty in composite indices
  • Work by Emily Nicholson to test indicators with marine ecosystem models
  • Kate Watermeyer (Postdoc) is assessing biodiversity indicators and the use of a terrestrial indicator in a marine context (the Biodiversity Intactness Index)y; and
  • Work by Katrina Szetey (Honours student, Deakin) on estuarine indicators.

Key Publications (also see here):

  • Costelloe, B.T., Collen, B., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Craigie, I.D., McRae, L., Rondinini, C. & Nicholson, E. (2015) Global biodiversity indicators reflect the modelled impacts of protected area policy change. Conservation Letters, in press [link].
  • Collen B. & Nicholson E. (2014). Taking the measure of change. Science, 346, 166-167 [link]
  • Nicholson, E., Collen, B., Barausse, A., Blanchard, J. L., Costelloe, B. T., Sullivan, K. M. E., Underwood, F. M., Burn, R. W., Fritz, S., Jones, J. P. G., McRae, L., Possingham, H. P. & Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2012) Robust policy decisions with global biodiversity indicators. PLoS One, 7(7): e41128 [link]
  • Guillera-Arroita, G., Lahoz-Monfort, J.J., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Young, R.P. & Nicholson, E. (2010) Evaluating occupancy for monitoring the Critically Endangered Alaotran gentle lemur (Hapalemur alaotrensis). Endangered Species Research, 11:157-166 [link].
  • Jones J.P.G., Collen B., Atkinson G., Baxter P., Bubb P., Illian J., Katzner T., Keane A., Loh J., Macdonald-Madden E., Nicholson E., Pereira H., Possingham H.P., Pullin A., Rodrigues A.S.L., Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez V., Sommerville M. & Milner-Gulland E.J. (2010). The why, what and how of global biodiversity indicators beyond the 2010 Target. Conservation Biology, 25, 450–457. [link]
  • Nicholson E. & H. P. Possingham (2006) Objectives for multiple species conservation planning. Conservation Biology 20 (3): 871-881. [link]
  • Whitehead A.L., Kujala H., Ives C.D., Gordon A., Lentini P.E., Wintle B.A., Nicholson E. & Raymond C.R. (2014) Integrating biological and social values when prioritizing places for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology, early view online [link]
  • Nicholson E., Lindenmayer D.B., Frank K. & Possingham H.P. (2013). Testing the focal species approach to conservation planning for species persistence. Diversity and Distributions, 19 (5-6): 530–540 [link]
  • Nicholson, E., Collen, B., Barausse, A., Blanchard, J. L., Costelloe, B. T., Sullivan, K. M. E., Underwood, F. M., Burn, R. W., Fritz, S., Jones, J. P. G., McRae, L., Possingham, H. P. & Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2012) Robust policy decisions with global biodiversity indicators. PLoS One, 7(7): e41128 [link]
  • De Ornellas P., Milner-Gulland E.J. & Nicholson E. (2011). The impact of data realities on conservation planning. Biological Conservation, 144, 1980–1988 [link].
  • Nicholson E. & O. Ovaskainen (2009) Conservation prioritization using metapopulation models. pp 110-121, in Spatial conservation prioritisation: quantitative methods and computational tools (eds. Moilanen A, Possingham HP & Wilson KA). Oxford University Press, Oxford. [email for a pdf]
  • Nicholson E. & H. P. Possingham (2007) Making conservation decisions under uncertainty for the persistence of multiple species. Ecological Applications 17 (1): 251-265. [link]
  • E. Nicholson, M. I. Westphal, K. Frank , W. A. Rochester, R. L. Pressey, D. Lindenmayer & H. P. Possingham (2006) A new method for conservation planning for the persistence of multiple species. Ecology Letters 9 (9): 1049-1060. [link]