In most discussions of the natural environment, the topic of biodiversity usually makes an appearance.
But what is biodiversity? And why is it so important?
“At least 40 per cent of the world’s economy and 80 per cent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources. In addition, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change.”
-The Convention about Life on Earth, Convention on Biodiversity web site
Biodiversity is the level of variation in organisms within an ecosystem. Think of it as the number of different species within an area, the numbers within each species, and the number of different ecological niches they fill. Polar regions tend to have limited biodiversity, while tropical areas have a relative abundance.
Biodiversity is often seen as the measure of the health of an ecosystem. Changes in biodiversity can act as a barometer of changes within the ecosystem. A decline in boreal chorus frogs can be an indicator of changes at a fundamental level within the system, and can presage changes in the population of everything from blackflies to shorebirds.
Moreover, biodiversity reflects the depth of an ecosystem, and it’s ability to respond to change. Having a diverse ecosystem means that the system can withstand damage, as even if a number of species are decimated, there will still be others to maintain the ecosystem.
Mankind is depleting the natural store of biodiversity on a variety of ways. One of the biggest in terms of effect is the elimination of habitat. The combination of the spread of agriculture, urban areas, and just the sheer population of people is working to crowd out natural areas and put pressure of the plant and animal life inhabiting those areas.
The introduction of alien species, like the Dutch Elm beetle or the zebra mussel, likewise see reductions in biodiversity as they crowd out and eliminate native species. Instead of shoals of a variety of clams and other shellfish, there as just massed colonies of zebra mussels. White tailed deer on Anticosti Island have crowded out other small animals, and are putting a great deal of pressure on native vegetation. If the island had greater biodiversity, or something like a full ecosystem, there would be predators to keep the deer under control. Often these introduced alien species have no predators, and are immune to the diseases that keep local varieties in check. Thus they can spread rapidly, crowding out the less robust natives.
Climate change is forcing changes at a rapid rate, and some organism simply cannot adapt the pace of change. Coral reefs are dying, in part because of climate change, and polar bears are having increased difficulty hunting due to thinning sea ice. As the climate continues to change, there will undoubtedly be many instances of biodiversity adversely affected.
We have barely scratched the surface in determining the number and nature of all the species in nature. Yet we are systematically eliminating them through our activities.
Biological diversity could be the source of the next great cure, or the solution to the loss of some monoculture crops due to disease. We do not know yet, and if we eliminate biodiversity, we will never know.
It is important for us to try and conserve the biodiversity of the world around us. If not for its own sake, then for the sake of natural resources and biological treasures that we don’t even know we have yet. The ecosystem will be wealthier and healthier for it, and so will we.