Biologists wants to predict where rare, tropical species might survive as changes in climate make their current habitat uninhabitable.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and around the world plan to put centuries of species’ data together with models of predicted climate change to track movement and forecast conditions for plants, mammals and birds in the tropics of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

The program, called Spatial Planning for Protected Areas in Response to Climate Change, or SPARC, is coordinated by Conservation International.

“The basic problem is, the world is very slowly being converted from a fully natural place to a fully human place,” said Lee Hannah of Conservation International.

“Complicating that is climate change,” said Hannah, a climate change biologist at Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science.

Species followed climate through Ice Ages and warm epochs, he said, “but as we put more fields and more cities and more humans in the way of movement, it becomes a problem.”

Brian Enquist, a professor in the UA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said species, whether plants or animals, have a variety of responses to degraded habitat.

They can adapt physiologically. They can become more rare, or even extinct. They can evolve. They can move.

Movement is often the most effective option. Across the globe, species are escaping the effects of a heating habitat by seeking higher ground.

As climate changes, the parks and preserves set aside as “biodiversity hot spots” may become the wrong spots, Enquist said.

Conservation groups and governments can assist with movement and preserve new biodiversity hot spots if scientists can forecast those new locations, he said.

“Novel” methods

Enquist, a plant biologist and ecologist, has been combining field observations of plants with huge amounts of data for years. He is a principal investigator of BIEN, the Botanical Information and Ecology Network, which has been working since 2008 to collect and synthesize vast sets of information about the vegetation of North and South America.

BIEN is also developing a standardized informatics infrastructure that will enable researchers to apply that knowledge.

Enquist was recently awarded a $525,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to “develop the novel computational methods and algorithms needed to forecast the current state and future fate of the many thousands of poorly studied species ranges.”

He and his students and fellow researchers have also developed tools to bring that information to researchers and the public. The whimsically titled “Plant-O-Matic” is a mobile app that provides a list and images of plant species within a 100-square-kilometer area surrounding the user.

Enquist said planned upgrades will make Plant-O-Matic “the botanical version of ‘Pokemon Go.’”

Another tool — ForestForecasts.org — lets users zoom in on a Google Earth map to any forest on the two continents and learn how it might change due to a warming climate.

Boundless records

The Conservation International initiative will span the globe’s tropical forests and fold in information about mammal and bird species.

Partners in the endeavor include the UA, Stony Brook University and institutions in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Chile, South Africa and China.

Enquist and the global team of researchers want to find out where species now exist, and where they might thrive in a warming world.

There are plenty of records — “centuries worth of observations where biologists have gone out and collected information and specimens,” he said. Over the past couple decades “there has been a real effort to digitize that information.”

It’s a painstaking task. “Imagine all those different museums, all these different biologists going back before the time of Darwin.”

Ultimately, the researchers hope to compile tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of observations, using a portal to supercomputing called Cyverse at the University of Arizona’s Bio5 Institute.

“This is one of the big challenges. We had to learn how to integrate all these different data sources and data observations in all these different languages,” said Enquist.

One simple example: “The word ‘Brazil’ is spelled differently in many different languages and can also be misspelled in many different ways,” said Enquist.

At the UA Herbarium, which houses more than a hundred years of collected specimens and observations, the effort to digitize and standardize the collection has been going on since the 1990s. The herbarium has converted more than half its 600,000 specimens and citations. It continues the conversion with paid student help and is continually cleaning up its records.

Software has limitations

Advances in character-recognition software will eventually speed that process, but somebody will still need to keep watch, Director Shelley McMahon said. “A lot of the information is idiosyncratic,” she said.

A computer would have trouble recognizing, for instance, the pen-and-ink scrawl of naturalist Friedrich Wislizenus on a card identifying the yucca specimen he gathered during an extended stay in Chihuahua during the Mexican-American War in 1846.

The herbarium has a large collection of specimens from Wisilzenus, who was detained as a suspected spy for months, but was allowed to continue collecting specimens by his Mexican captors.

Mistakes happen, said George Ferguson, senior curatorial specialist, in both the original data and in the conversions to digital format.

A group of Mexican researchers recently corrected the misidentification of a number of orchid species in the collection, he said. Ferguson estimates that about 20,000 of the Herbarium’s holdings are duplicates.

Biologists are also continuously revising taxonomic information. McMahon estimates that 95 percent of mislabeling errors exist because biologists, using genomic techniques, have refined the genealogy of species — and changed their names.

A poster on her office window demonstrates how that sweet acacia (Acacia Farnesiana) in your yard is actually a Vachellia farnesiana. “It drives the landscapers crazy,” she said.

But the UA Herbarium, like natural history museums across the globe, corrects those taxonomic problems as it converts its records.

“The biodiversity community has been focused on trying to improve the quality of biodiversity data for many years now,” said Hannah, of Conservation International. “We’re working toward standardizing and cleaning biodiversity data. It now has a tremendous wealth of standardized data that allows projects such as this SPARC project to start.”

Enquist said: “Each museum does it a little differently and some are better than others. The UA Herbarium does an excellent job.”

But even when the data is clean, it needs to be combined with other data that is not entirely compatible. That requires sophisticated computer algorithms and access to super-computing ability.

Enquist said the goal is “to provide forecasts for biodiversity just like we would provide forecasts for increased risks of thunderstorms or tornadoes.”

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@tucson.com or 520-573-4158. Follow him on Facebook or @bealagram on Twitter.