Lions trying to take down a water buffalo in Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: © Corinata (CC BY 3.0)

What Is Biodiversity?

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The word “biodiversity” means “variety of life”. It stems from the Greek word “bios” meaning “life” and the Latin word “divertere” meaning “to vary or to go different ways”. For example, we might talk about the “biodiversity of the planet”, in which case we mean the biosphere – everything that lives on Earth. This includes everything from microbes like viruses and bacteria, to large animals like elephants and whales, as well as all other living things, including plants, crops, fungi, seaweeds, phytoplankton and corals.

Or we might use the word in connection with a specific ecosystem. For example, when we talk about the amazing biodiversity of the Amazon Rainforest, we mean the incredible variety of different trees, plants, insects, birds and other creatures that inhabit the Amazon basin.

Or we might even talk about the growing biodiversity of our neighbors’ collection of orchids, in which case we mean the range of different types of orchids they have.

Conversely, loss of biodiversity means a reduction in the variety of species – types of animals, plants and other life forms.

As you can see, the word “biodiversity” can apply to life in any size of environment – ranging from the planet-wide biosphere, via individual biomes like the rainforest, down to the individual species or even DNA. It simply means variety of living things.

In its broadest sense, biodiversity describes life on Earth in all its forms and cyclical interactions. For example, tiny phytoplankton release oxygen into the air before being eaten by less tiny zooplankton, who are eaten by small fish, who are eaten by big tuna, whose waste falls into the depths to create nutrients for phytoplankton. Meantime, the tuna are caught by humans who breathe in the oxygen from the phytoplankton and eat the tuna.

As this example from the food web shows, all living things (including we humans) are dependent upon the contribution of other living things, for their survival. “Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity,” says Professor David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University. 1

WANT TO MINIMIZE YOUR IMPACT ON BIODIVERSITY?
See our article: How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

Does The World Need 20,000 Butterflies?

Yes. The more biodiversity, the better. Each species has its own unique characteristics that help support its particular habitat, thus contributing to the overall benefit of the planet. In general, adult butterflies and caterpillars are an important food source for birds, lizards, snakes, toads, rats, mice, spiders, dragonflies, wasps, ants, and other small creatures. They are also vital pollinators helping plants and flowers to reproduce. If butterfly populations decline, the effect is felt higher up the food chain and can affect the whole ecosystem. For example, in Britain and Ireland, Blue Tits eat an estimated 50 billion butterfly and moth caterpillars each year. How would Blue Tits survive without them.

King swallowtail butterfly
King swallowtail butterfly (Papilio thoas) Photo: © Jon Sullivan

Butterflies also help plants like milkweed (and other wildflowers) to reproduce by transferring pollen from male parts of the plant to the female parts. They also improve plant health by eliminating pests. For example, the larvae of harvester butterflies eat sap-sucking insects like greenfly and blackfly.

As well as all this, butterflies – like thousands of other species – also have unique pharmacological assets. For example, extracts of several butterfly species native to Britain were shown to possess powerful bactericidal activity against certain strains of bacteria (like Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus anthracis). The antimicrobial agents in the grass-feeding butterflies were identified as hydroxylated pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are known insecticidal and insect-deterrent compounds. 2

The point is, the more butterflies there are, the more support there is for the ecosystems they inhabit. Which benefits all the other living things that spend their lives inside the same ecosystems. So, a biologically diverse rainforest with a wide range of flora and fauna is far more likely to survive than a forest with only a few types of animals and plants.

Sadly, much of the Earth’s biodiversity – the animals and plants that constitute the “living planet” – is now in jeopardy due to human activity. Population growth, pollution, exploitation of resources and climate change, are all threats to biodiversity. In fact, we are witnessing an unprecedented rise in the numbers of species that are becoming extinct. Some scientists estimate that half of the world’s species will be wiped out within the next century. 3

According to one scientific survey that analysed evidence from more than 1,000 ecological studies conducted over a 20-year period, the alarming loss of biodiversity caused by human actions will alter the functioning of ecosystems and their ability to provide society with the food and other essentials of modern life. 4

Who first coined the term “biodiversity”?
The word biodiversity was first used in 1985 by Walter G. Rosen of the National Research Council, in the title of a seminar he was organizing to discuss biological diversity. The term first appeared in a publication, in 1988, when the entomologist and ant-expert E. O. Wilson used it as the title of his book – BioDiversity – on the seminar’s proceedings. Since then, the term has mushroomed in popularity and is used widely in environmental science and conservation.

Where Is The Greatest Biodiversity?

As you might expect, biodiversity on land is not evenly distributed throughout the planet. It is much greater near the equator and in the tropics, due to the warm climate and higher levels of primary productivity (uptake of chemicals from atmospheric or oceanic carbon dioxide). 5 For example, tropical rainforest ecosystems occupy less than 10 percent of earth’s surface, yet contain about 90 percent of its species. 6 For example, in about 15 hectares (37 acres) of Borneo rainforest, there are 700 species of tree – the same number as the whole of North America. (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Marine biodiversity, fish in the oceans
Marine biodiversity and the marine food web are both threatened by overfishing, coastal land use change, and global warming. First, one-third of fish stocks are overfished, while nearly two-thirds are fished at their maximum sustainable levels. Second, coastal marine habitats are being damaged by offshore development, and by toxic pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff. Third, all sea creatures are under pressure from marine heatwaves, ocean warming and acidification. Photo: © Nick Graham

In comparison, marine biodiversity is typically greatest along coasts in the Western Pacific, where sea temperatures are high, and in the mid-latitudinal oceanic zone. Curiously, “species richness” (the number of different species in a particular area) is not necessarily a valid metric of biodiversity change. 7

How Many Species Are There In The World?

Estimates of the total number of Earth’s current species range from 8 million to 14 million. 8 9 Of these some 2.3 million had been documented, according to research conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). More recently, scientists have reported that the planet is home to an astonishing 1 trillion species. 10

Firey Throated Hummingbird
The fiery-throated hummingbird (Panterpe insignis) is native to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is typically found in the montane forest canopy at elevations of 1400 meters above sea level. The adult has shiny green plumage, a blue tail, and a white mark behind the eye. Photo: © Joseph C Boone (CC BY 3.0)

This ‘species-inflation’ is due partly to the new belief that creatures once thought to be a single species could in some cases be dozens of species. Also, the inclusion of bacteria and viruses – of which there are many millions – boosts the numbers considerably. After all, there are an estimated 10,000-50,000 different microbes in a single teaspoon of soil. 11 For more, see: Why is Soil So Important to the Planet? and also: What is the Pedosphere?

Despite these mathematical offerings, the truth is, no one really knows how many species of living things exist on our planet. All that we can say with certainty is that (a) there are a lot of species, and (b) an increasing number – perhaps as many as 1 million – are in danger of extinction. 12

Statistics For Existing Species

Here is a brief summary of the numbers of each of the main groups of living plants and animals in the world, today. Not included are micro-organisms, like bacteria, and domestic/zoo animals.

Statistics of Recorded Species – IUCN Red List (2019)

Vertebrates (with backbone)

Mammals6,495
Birds11,147
Reptiles11,050
Amphibians8,104
Fishes35,315
Subtotal72,111

Invertebrates (w/o backbone)

Insects1,053,578
Molluscs87,975
Crustaceans80,604
Corals2,175
Arachnids110,615
Velvet Worms183
Horseshoe Crabs4
Others164,209
Subtotal1,499,343

Plants

Mosses21,925
Ferns & Allies11,800
Flowerless plants1,113
Flowering Plants369,000
Green Algae11,551
Red Algae7,294
Subtotal422,683

Fungi & Protists

Lichens17,000
Mushrooms, etc120,000
Brown Algae4,263
Subtotal141,263
TOTAL 2,135,400

Source: Summary Statistics – IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2019): Version 2019-3: Table 1a. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 13

In addition to the above, every year roughly 13,000 new species are catalogued and added to the 1.7 million species that have been classified to date. Most of the new species are plants, bacteria and invertebrates, but even large vertebrates are still being uncovered. In 1990, for example, a new species of monkey was discovered.

How Important Is Biodiversity?

It’s as important as the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Because all these actions depend ultimately on biodiversity. Just like butterflies who help plants to thrive, every other living thing has a role to play in its particular ecosystem. In fact, it’s only because of Earth’s amazing variety of living things that there is: carbon dioxide to keep us warm, oxygen to breathe, fresh water to drink, and fish and plant food to eat. Without these things, human life would be impossible. So, as you can see, biodiversity isn’t just important, it’s absolutely 100 percent essential.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio, formerly Dendrobates pumilio)
Poison dart frogs are found in Central and South America, chiefly in the Amazon rainforest, and feed on termites, ants, crickets, and fruit flies. They convert chemicals from their food into poisons which they release from the skin when threatened. Sadly, an estimated 28 percent of the species are endangered due to deforestation and loss of habitat. Photo: © Marshal Hedin

Here are some simple examples of how biodiversity works:

• Plants and phytoplankton release oxygen into the air, which is essential for cellular respiration for all aerobic organisms. At the same time, by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, they also play a massive role in restraining the greenhouse effect. In addition, they act as the foundation for terrestrial and marine food chains, respectively. 14

Terrestrial plants are an essential food source for nearly all land-based organisms, including we humans. Either, we eat plants, or we eat organisms that eat plants. Plants are also an important part of several biogeochemical cycles, such as the water cycle (hydrological cycle). When plants transpire, they move huge amounts of water from the soil into the atmosphere. Plants are also critical to the carbon cycle. They absorb CO2 from the air pass it on to other organisms (like rabbits, cattle) through the food chain. Plants also act as habitats for many organisms. A single tree may provide shelter and nutrients to hundreds of species of insects, worms, small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

For example, in 1982, a scientist identified 1200 beetle species living in one particular species of tree in the tropical rainforest, 163 of which he estimated were unique to the tree in question. 15

Coral reefs, known as the “rainforests of the sea”, act as nurseries and homes for a bewildering variety of marine plants and sea grasses. In addition, one quarter of all fish species depend on corals at some point in their life cycle. 16 17

• Many trees and plants rely on a host of animals and birds to disperse their seeds in the forest, creating new growth. 18 For example, in tropical forests, like the Congo Rainforest, 70-94 percent of tree species are estimated to rely on vertebrates for the dispersal of their seeds. 19

• In many ecosystems, certain species would exhaust the plant food reserves of the habitat, were it not for the presence of predators to trim their numbers. Lions, for example, are the only animal capable of taking down the large herbivores such as water buffalos, giraffes and elephants. Lions prey mainly on herd animals, like wildebeest, singling out the weakest members whenever possible. Since herds typically make strenuous efforts to protect their young, most animals that fall victim are either old or sick. Thus, predatory attacks by lions keep herds strong and healthy. Without lions, disease would spread throughout the herds, leading to fewer healthy animals.

In addition, in the absence of apex predators like lions, smaller carnivores tend to proliferate. For example, after a cull of lions in Ghana, olive baboons quickly multiplied in the region, causing significant problems in farms and villages by attacking cattle, damaging crops and spreading disease.

After hunters decimated the North American gray wolf, the number of elk in Yellowstone National Park soared. With no natural predator, the elk ate the Aspen tree almost to extinction. Now, due to the increasing populations of gray wolves in the park, the elk population is now balancing out and the aspen tree is recovering.

Great white shark, swimming in blue ocean
The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) the largest known predatory fish in the sea, can grow up to 6 meters (20 feet) in length and up to 2,268 kg (5,000 pounds) in weight. Like all apex predators they play an essential role in biodiversity and ecosystem health. Great White sharks are found in all oceans around the world, although they have favorite hunting areas. For example, from October to March they can be found hunting elephant seals along the central California coast. From May to September they can be found off the western cape of South Africa, hunting fur seals. They are now listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Photo: © Terry Goss (CC BY 2.5)

• Sharks perform a similar sort of role in the ocean, where they regulate the numbers and types of fish on coral reefs. For instance, sharks eat the fish that prey on the algae-eaters – fish that stop algae from ruining coral reefs. They also help to prevent medium sized species from over-dominating smaller fish.

An interesting example occurred a few years ago on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. After most of the large sharks were fished out, the numbers of shellfish plummeted. How come? Because rays, skates and small sharks (who eat shellfish) were able to proliferate without the bigger sharks around to prey on them, enabling them to devour the whole crop of oysters and scallops. Which meant that ocean water in the vicinity was more polluted. Because as oysters, clams, and mussels suck in ocean water to feed on phytoplankton, they also take in pollutants and other toxic chemicals, releasing the cleaned and filtered water back into the sea. One oyster, for example, can clean 50 gallons of water a day. 20

Krill are tiny crustaceans, found in all the world’s oceans, who play an exceptionally important role in the marine ecosystem. A major eater of micro-size phytoplankton, they themselves are the main food source for most of the marine predators (such as penguins, seals, whales, other fish) around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean. In effect, they repackage vast amounts of phytoplankton into their own body in order to make them available for larger predators further up the food chain. As a result, they are known as the ‘keystone species’ in the Southern Ocean ecosystem. 21

Marine microbes like bacteria and viruses have a massive influence on the marine food chain and on the ocean’s ‘biological pump’. The microbial loop and viral shunt, for example, are mini-cycles in which organic material is made available primarily for the populations of microscopic organisms in the ocean.

• Fungi, a group of eukaryotic organisms that includes mushrooms, molds and yeasts, are separate from the other eukaryotic kingdoms of plants and animals. But their role in Earth’s biosphere could not be more important. They are part of a diverse group of “decomposers” that break down dead plants and animals, releasing carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus into the air and soil, in the process. Some of the organic compounds produced by fungi are used to make anticoagulants and antibiotics. 22

For more about chemicals in the soil, see: our articles on: the Nitrogen Cycle and the Phosphorus Cycle.

Mangrove swamps provide significant protection from cyclones and tsunamis for those living in coastal areas. These wetlands also play an important part in climate change mitigation by sequestering more carbon per acre than tropical rainforests.

Medical Benefits Of Biodiversity

Numerous medical remedies have been influenced by wildlife, from painkillers to medications for heart conditions, cancer and high blood pressure. 23 According to the IUCN Medicinal Plants Specialist Group, as many as 70,000 known medicinal and aromatic plants are in commercial use. 24 What’s more, almost three quarters of new small molecule drugs sold worldwide over the past 25 years have stemmed from a natural source. 25 This is one reason why deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is so damaging – not only does it contribute to global warming, it also robs us of significant medicinal benefits produced by plants that are unique to the rainforest biome.

Is Biodiversity Affected By Global Warming?

Yes. Rising temperatures are causing huge changes throughout the biosphere. Already, warming ocean waters have wiped out 40 percent of phytoplankton since 1950. 26 27

According to a study published in Nature, a third of the 3,800 reefs that make up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the most extensive coral reef system in the world – suffered a major die-off after a searing heat wave in 2016. The following year, a major bleaching event triggered by global warming destroyed even more of the reef.

The combined effect of these two disasters has devastated half the reef in just two years. 28 29

The Great Barrier Reef is not the only casualty of climate change. According to a recent Catlin Seaview Survey (CSS), similar events have devastated about half the world’s coral reefs in the past 30 years.

Indeed, global warming is having a massive impact on biodiversity throughout the world. As temperatures begin to rise north and south of the equator, species migrate accordingly, leaving traditional habitats behind. Their arrival in new habitats and the extra competition for food it causes, leads to severe stress among indigenous as well as newcomer species. For more, see: Effects of Climate Change on Animals.

Birds following traditional migration routes are finding that their regular stopover feeding points (such as lakes, wetlands or other ecosystems) lack sufficient food or freshwater due to climate change. Tropical forests are disappearing – due to deforestation or change of land-use – or drying out. This results in loss of habitat for many species as well as fatalities at the hands of farmers.

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Human Threats To Biodiversity

But humans remain the greatest threat to global diversity. As the human population rises and wild areas of forest are cleared to create grazing land or space for mines, dams, crops, housing, roads, and other infrastructure, so plants and animals inevitably suffer. See also: 7 Effects of Climate Change on Plants.

According to the IPBES 2019 Global Assessment Report, around 66 percent of the marine environment have been altered significantly by human activities. Where areas were owned or managed by indigenous peoples or local communities, the impact was less severe. More than 33 percent of the world’s land surface and almost 75 percent of freshwater resources are now used by livestock or crop-based agriculture.

According to one study, habitats disturbed by forest clearance host 41 percent fewer species than undisturbed habitats. 30 However, another study suggests that loss of tropical forest alone – even without considering other man-made stress factors such as climate change and the broader effects of global warming – will trigger a mass extinction event over the next couple of centuries. 31

Microplastics Pollution Threatens Marine Biodiversity

Planet Earth is awash with waste plastic. In particular, microplastics (less than 5 mm in size), have been steadily accumulating in our oceans since they first appeared in the 1970s. 32 Today, scientists estimate that roughly 4-12 million tons of plastics enter the oceans each year posing multiple threats to marine life. Microplastics have been found in every ocean, including the Arctic Ocean. Indeed, in a recent study, they were found in 90 percent of the ice-core samples taken from the Arctic Sea. 33 Meantime, in the Barents Sea, almost half of the fish tested had microplastics in their digestive tract. Sea birds are especially vulnerable. Over 94 percent of plastics extracted from seabirds were less than 5 mm in size. 34 Alarmingly, heavy metals and plastics are combining to create even more damaging threats to biodiversity. 35

Chemical Pollution Damages Top Marine Predators

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and organochlorine (OC) pesticides have well-established dose-dependent toxicities for fish, mammals and birds in experimental studies. But their impact on European marine top predators was unknown. Now a study shows that several of these large fish have exceptionally high PCB concentrations in their blubber – high enough to cause population declines. Three out of four species – striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and killer whales – had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal toxicity thresholds. 36

Biodiversity Under Attack From Invasive Species

Invasive species pose serious dangers to native wildlife. More than 40 percent of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to these deadly invaders. 37

What exactly are invasive species? Well, they can be any kind of animal, plant or other organism that is not native to an ecosystem or habitat and causes harm. Typically, most of these invaders grow and reproduce quickly, and spread aggressively, out-performing local species.

Examples of invasive species include birds, like the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris); fish, like Asian Carp (Silver Carp, Bighead Carp, Grass Carp, Black Carp), or Snakehead Fish (Channidae family); shellfish, such as Green Crabs (Carcinus maenas) or Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha); amphibians such as the Cane Toad (Rhinella marina); insects, such as Asian Tiger Mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) or Asian long-horned beetles (Anoplophora glabripennis); mammals like the Black Rat (Rattus rattus), Small Indian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus) or the feral pig (Sus scrofa); reptiles, like Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus); plants, including Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata), Water hyacinth (E. crassipes) or Cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica); or fungi like Ophiostoma ulmi which causes Dutch elm disease. Each of these species has had a devastating impact on the biodiversity of native wildlife.

How do invasive species spread? Primarily by human action, often unintentionally. Freight cargoes, crates of different goods, containers of food – even people – can all unknowingly transport uninvited species to new destinations. Ships can carry aquatic creatures in their ballast water; insects can burrow into wood or wooden crates; long range fishing boats can empty unwanted catches into the sea before docking. Exotic pets can be accidentally released.

But deliberate actions have caused some of the worst problems, as humans have thoughtlessly introduced foreign species into habitats to deal with one specific problem, only to create a much bigger problem. The 19th century, for example, saw a huge expansion of the sugar cane industry; plantations appeared on many tropical islands including several in the Caribbean. But with sugar cane came rats – attracted by the sweet taste – who caused massive crop loss. So, starting in 1870 the Indian mongoose was introduced to Jamaica, Cuba, and other islands, to prey upon the rats and to reduce the number of snakes in the cane fields. Unfortunately, their introduction – while good for the sugar cane plantations – had a devastating impact on local wildlife.

A more recent case involves a virus. Ever since the 1970s, the frog chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has been identified as a cause of the decline and extinction of amphibians across several continents. Now, a study has found that human movement of amphibians – typically, through the pet trade – is responsible for spreading the pathogen around the world. 38

Wildlife Poaching Can Drive Animals To Extinction

In 2011, the Western Black Rhinoceros was declared to be extinct. This animal, a subspecies of the critically endangered Black Rhino, was poached due to the belief that extracts from its horn could cure cancer. Similar motivations are behind the demand for bear gall bladders and big horned sheep antlers. Another critically endangered species is the Sumatran Tiger which is killed and sold for its skin, teeth, bones, and claws. Of course, elephant ivory is still much sought-after by Asian collectors, despite ivory trading being illegal in several Asian countries.

Mining Damages The Ecosystem

All mining and drilling activity – whether for fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas, or for minerals like iron, bauxite, phosphates, gypsum, copper, cobalt, and lithium – results in significant habitat modification or damage, if not wholesale destruction. The effects of seismic problems, air pollution, contamination of groundwater and aquifers, leeching of chemicals from slurry pits, tailings ponds and other surface containers, can have a catastrophic impact on the diversity of animals, vegetation and microorganisms within a local environment.

Not all mines are equally hazardous, and some can be relatively clean, but in general, mining poses serious and highly specific threats to biodiversity. 39 For more on this topic, see: Environmental Effects of Fossil Fuels.

The Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) is a key platform for countries and industries to evaluate relationships between mining and biodiversity and to help to develop a coordinated plan of action. In addition, the whole issue of how mining affects biodiversity should become a more pressing concern for frontline bodies like the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

How Financially Valuable Is Biodiversity?

A report published in 2014 assessed the annual global value of ecosystem services at roughly US$125 trillion a year. (World GDP in 2019 was roughly US$86 trillion a year.) Biodiversity loss in Europe alone costs the continent around 3 percent of its GDP, or €450m (£400m), a year. 40 41

How Much Biodiversity Is Being Lost?

New studies show the collapse in the total number of animals and the results are horrifying. Since 1970, half the world’s animals have been wiped out. Researchers are describing this massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” and an “assault on the foundations of human civilisation”. 42

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