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From bush turkeys to Goeldi's marmosets, Amazonian biodiversity is famously rich — and as famously threatened by development. Now a faster, cheaper way of documenting the region's plants and animals is bringing conservationists and locals together to chart key areas for protection and sustainable use.

In this article in Nature, Thomas Hayden reports on how the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, United States, is leading such 'rapid biological inventories'.

Using satellite images, maps and other data, biologists target promising areas and then work with local scientists and students to walk existing and newly cut trails, recording the species they encounter.

Their findings are used to inform decision-makers dealing with development planning.

A typical survey takes a few weeks and costs around US$300,000. Since 1999 the team has surveyed 9.2 million hectares.

In parallel with these are social inventories — surveys of the organisational structure of local communities and how they use the forest. The teams work with indigenous groups, government and local conservation organisations to deepen their understanding of the value of the surveyed areas.

But as species continue to disappear, some wonder whether even these surveys are fast enough to discover what exists — before it is lost forever.

Link to full article in Nature

Reference: Nature 445, 481 (2007)