7 The Importance of Biodiversity

The Biodiversity Crisis

Biologists estimate that species extinctions are currently 500–1000 times the normal, or background, rate seen previously in Earth’s history. The current high rates will cause a precipitous decline in the biodiversity of the planet in the next century or two. The loss of biodiversity will include many species we know today. Although it is sometimes difficult to predict which species will become extinct, many are listed as endangered (at great risk of extinction). However, many extinctions will affect species that biologist have not yet discovered. Most of these “invisible” species that will become extinct currently live in tropical rainforests like those of the Amazon basin. These rainforests are the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and are being destroyed rapidly by deforestation. Between 1970 and 2011, almost 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest was lost.

This photo shows a lush green landscape with diverse tropical trees, ferns, and mosses growing next to a small stream.

Biodiversity is a broad term for biological variety, and it can be measured at a number of organizational levels. Traditionally, ecologists have measured biodiversity by taking into account both the number of species and the number of individuals of each species (known as relative abundance). However, biologists are using different measures of biodiversity, including genetic diversity, to help focus efforts to preserve the biologically and technologically important elements of biodiversity.

Biodiversity loss refers to the reduction of  biodiversity due to displacement or extinction of species.  The loss of a particular individual species may seem unimportant to some, especially if it is not a charismatic species like the Bengal tiger or the bottlenose dolphin. However, the current accelerated extinction rate means the loss of tens of thousands of species within our lifetimes. Much of this loss is occurring in tropical rainforests like the one pictured in Figure 1, which are very high in biodiversity but are being cleared for timber and agriculture. This is likely to have dramatic effects on human welfare through the collapse of ecosystems.

Biologists recognize that human populations are embedded in ecosystems and are dependent on them, just as is every other species on the planet. Agriculture began after early hunter-gatherer societies first settled in one place and heavily modified their immediate environment. This cultural transition has made it difficult for humans to recognize their dependence on living things other than crops and domesticated animals on the planet. Today our technology smooths out the harshness of existence and allows many of us to live longer, more comfortable lives, but ultimately the human species cannot exist without its surrounding ecosystems. Our ecosystems provide us with food, medicine, clean air and water, recreation, and spiritual and aesthetical inspiration.

Types of Biodiversity

A common meaning of biodiversity is simply the number of species in a location or on Earth; for example, the American Ornithologists’ Union lists 2078 species of birds in North and Central America. This is one measure of the bird biodiversity on the continent. More sophisticated measures of diversity take into account the relative abundances of species. For example, a forest with 10 equally common species of trees is more diverse than a forest that has 10 species of trees wherein just one of those species makes up 95 percent of the trees. Biologists have also identified alternate measures of biodiversity, some of which are important in planning how to preserve biodiversity.

Genetic diversity is one alternate concept of biodiversity. Genetic diversity is the raw material for evolutionary adaptation in a species and is represented by the variety of genes present within a population. A species’ potential to adapt to changing environments or new diseases depends on this genetic diversity.

It is also useful to define ecosystem diversity: the number of different ecosystems on Earth or in a geographical area. The loss of an ecosystem means the loss of the interactions between species and the loss of biological productivity that an ecosystem is able to create. An example of a largely extinct ecosystem in North America is the prairie ecosystem (Figure 2). Prairies once spanned central North America from the boreal forest in northern Canada down into Mexico. They are now all but gone, replaced by crop fields, pasture lands, and suburban sprawl. Many of the species survive, but the hugely productive ecosystem that was responsible for creating our most productive agricultural soils is now gone. As a consequence, their soils are now being depleted unless they are maintained artificially at great expense. The decline in soil productivity occurs because the interactions in the original ecosystem have been lost.

Photo on the left shows a coral reef. Some of the coral is lobe-shaped, with bumpy pink protrusions, and the other coral has long, slender beige branches. Fish swim among the coral. Photo on the right is a rolling prairie with nothing but tall brown grass as far as the eye can see.
Figure 2. The variety of ecosystems on Earth—from coral reef to prairie—enables a great diversity of species to exist. (credit “coral reef”: modification of work by Jim Maragos, USFWS; credit: “prairie”: modification of work by Jim Minnerath, USFWS)

Current Species Diversity

Despite considerable effort, knowledge of the species that inhabit the planet is limited. A recent estimate suggests that only 13% of eukaryotic species have been named (Table 1).  Estimates of numbers of prokaryotic species are largely guesses, but biologists agree that science has only just begun to catalog their diversity. . Given that Earth is losing species at an accelerating pace, science knows little about what is being lost.

Table 1. This table shows the estimated number of species by taxonomic group—including both described (named and studied) and predicted (yet to be named) species.
Estimated Numbers of Described and Predicted species
Source: Mora et al 2011 Source: Chapman 2009 Source: Groombridge and Jenkins 2002
Described Predicted Described Predicted Described Predicted
Animals 1,124,516 9,920,000 1,424,153 6,836,330 1,225,500 10,820,000
Photosynthetic protists 17,892 34,900 25,044 200,500
Fungi 44,368 616,320 98,998 1,500,000 72,000 1,500,000
Plants 224,244 314,600 310,129 390,800 270,000 320,000
Non-photosynthetic protists 16,236 72,800 28,871 1,000,000 80,000 600,000
Prokaryotes 10,307 1,000,000 10,175
Total 1,438,769 10,960,000 1,897,502 10,897,630 1,657,675 13,240,000

There are various initiatives to catalog described species in accessible and more organized ways, and the internet is facilitating that effort. Nevertheless, at the current rate of species description, which according to the State of Observed Species1 reports is 17,000–20,000 new species a year, it would take close to 500 years to describe all of the species currently in existence. The task, however, is becoming increasingly impossible over time as extinction removes species from Earth faster than they can be described.

Naming and counting species may seem an unimportant pursuit given the other needs of humanity, but it is not simply an accounting. Describing species is a complex process by which biologists determine an organism’s unique characteristics and whether or not that organism belongs to any other described species. It allows biologists to find and recognize the species after the initial discovery to follow up on questions about its biology. That subsequent research will produce the discoveries that make the species valuable to humans and to our ecosystems. Without a name and description, a species cannot be studied in depth and in a coordinated way by multiple scientists.

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