Biodiversity: a Metaguide

madrean pine oak woodlands a biodiversity hotspot in mexico and the us
Mexico and the United States’ Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands, a North American biodiversity hotspot Image credit: Prsjl at Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license

Of all the environmental challenges currently facing us, biodiversity loss probably gets the least amount of broad attention… likely because its also one of the toughest to wrap our heads around (yep, even more than climate change). As biodiversity is key to maintaining healthy ecosystems, and life on Earth period, it’s also one of the most critical… which is one reason the United Nations has declared 2011-2020 the Decade on Biodiversity.

Most of us likely associate the concept with species extinction, and that’s certainly a big part of the threat posed. But while the loss of a species like the polar bear is important, it’s not because they’re cute and cuddly looking (at least from a distance); its because without this particular species present, other elements of its ecosystems can get out of balance… and that’s something that can affect us even if we live nowhere near the Arctic Circle.

This guide will help you get a handle on the sometimes difficult concepts related to biodiversity, and point you to some of the best resources online for exploring the topic further. Like our other metaguides, this one’s always in progress… so if you know of a good resource that belongs here, let us know.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity, or biological diversity, isn’t a single thing: rather, it’s a concept that encompasses plant and animal species themselves, their habitats, the ecosystems of which they’re a part, and the genetic diversity within a given species. To complicate things a bit further (but also to add another critical layer to the concept), Professor Anthony Campbell proposed that molecular diversity also be considered within the broader concept in 2003.

So how do you sum all of that up in a tidy definition?

  • California’s Biodiversity Council has collected scientific definitions of the concept offered by a number of researchers and organizations.
  • The Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce offers an overview of the key constituents of the concept, including genetic diversity, species richness, and ecosystem diversity.
  • The National Wildlife federation also provides a definition of biodiversity geared more towards the layperson.
  • And The Wild Classroom has created the video below (shot in Panama) that explains biodiversity for students.

Next page: Why is biological diversity important? (Use the page links below to navigate)

blue starfish on great barrier reef
The Great Barrier reef, a biodiverse ocean ecosystem Image credit: Richard Ling at Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license

The Importance of Biodiversity

Biological diversity is a central component of healthy ecosystems; it’s also critical to numerous human activities (because we, too, rely on ecosystems for both products and services).

  • The National Parks Conservation Association demonstrates the importance of biodiversity in ecosystems with the example of the role coral reefs play in maintaining ocean ecosystems… and thus supporting human economic activities such as fishing.
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides in-depth resources on the importance of biological diversity to agriculture. Diversity of plant and animal species farmed and ranched are covered, as well as supporting systems for agriculture, such as soil, pollinators, and forests.
  • Biodiversity also plays an important role in maintaining human health, from “ecosystem services” that purify air and water, to medicinal species (many of which may still be undiscovered). The Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School published a thorough book on the topic in 2008; the writing team’s interim executive summary (from 2002) is available online, and provides a clear overview of the issues involved.
  • Business and industry relies on natural resources and materials for manufacturing produc ts; biodiversity helps insure that materials are available with the qualities a product developer might need. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Platform on Business and Biodiversity provides resources (case studies, overviews of business frameworks for measuring impact on biodiversity, etc) for companies looking to lighten their footprint on the resources necessary to their survival. The United Nations Finance Initiative published a report on the business case for biodiversity conservation in 2008.
  • Ecosystem services don’t just contribute to human health: they’re also critical for agriculture, flood control and storm protection, organic waste breakdown, and other necessities. A statistical analysis of over one hundred studies by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that biodiversity directly impacts the functioning of these services.
  • Finally, diverse environments serve as places for recreation and aesthetic pleasure. Some may argue about the relative importance of these “services,” but most would agree that they contribute to our health and well-being. Would you want to hike or camp in a clear-cut forest?
the valdivian temperate rain forests
The Valdivian Temperate Rain Forests, part of a hotspot in South America Image credit: Roberto Bahamonde Andrade Fecha at Wikimedia Commons

Biodiversity hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots (a phrase coined by British environmental scientist Norman Myers in 1988) are characterized by “especially high numbers of endemic species” (especially plant species), and by serious levels of habitat loss. Hotspots are spread around the globe, and new ones are added to lists as habitat loss increases in particularly diverse areas.

Specific threats to biodiversity

Several scholar and organizations have created categorizations of threats to biological diversity.

  • Jared Diamond coined the concept of the “Evil Quartet” of habitat destruction, overkill, introduced species, and secondary extinctions.
  • Biologist E.O. Wilson created the acronym HIPPO, which stands for habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human over population, and over-harvesting.
  • The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Threats Taxonomy specifies eleven direct threats.

Last (but not least): success stories in biodiversity conservation (Use the page links below to navigate)

Forest land in South Korea
Forest land in South Korea Image credit: HanKooKin at Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license

Biodiversity conservation success stories

Fortunately, all is not bleak in terms of biodiversity loss: a number of projects around the world have succeeded in conserving and even restoring biological health to ecosystems.

The Convention on Biological Diversity created a “clearing house” of biodiversity conservation success stories as a part of its celebration of the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010. Among the stories covered:

Note: Some of the resources mentioned in this guide were originally found at Wikipedia’s Biodiversity page; I confirmed their authority and reliability before sharing them in this post.

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