three and a half billion years. Over that time, over 95 percent of the species that have existed have become extinct and new species better adapted to threats and changing conditions have evolved.
So why worry about the loss of biodiversity now?
Well, because it appears that a single species, Homo Sapiens, may well cause a mass extinction which will include its own species as we too are dependent on our habitat. A mass extinction is defined as a time when 75 percent or more of species are lost over a short geological time scale. Many biologists believe that we are presently in the midst of “The Sixth Mass Extinction” .
What is biodiversity conservation?
Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems. It not only encompasses the ecological processes as we can see them, but also holds the key to the evolutionary processes that sustain life and the cultural relationships that nurture the spirit.
Understanding biodiversity requires examining it at three different levels. Most commonly, it is thought of at the level of species biodiversity, for example, when we are considering endangered species. But to truly understand the fate of a species and its significance to our biosphere, that is the totality of life sustaining us, it must also be evaluated from the genetic level and at the ecosystem level.
Understanding the interactions that are keeping us alive and healthy underscores the need to conserve our environment in its diversity.
The exact number of species can only be estimated.
We have identified 1.8 million species, but estimates range from 3.6 million to over 100 million.
They can be as small and simple as single-celled microbes or as huge as the Great Blue Whale.
Species differ so vastly that organisms can live in the violently hot water of geysers, while others can survive in sub-Arctic temperatures and yet others in extremely salty environments. Not all organisms need oxygen for respiration as we do.
While we can identify the role some species play in the propagation of nature, there is much that we do not know. We look to the number of any given species to determine its odds of dying out.
Genes reside within species and are responsible for their traits.
They are given special consideration in the field of biodiversity conservation because of their role in preserving a species and in allowing the species to adapt to changes.
Ecosystems are all of the animals, plants, and micro-organisms as well as physical aspects of the area.
For example, a desert ecosystem not only includes its plants and animals, but also the sand and rocks. Marine ecosystems can be very complex and vary considerably depending upon the area being examined. The ecosystem being studied may be a coral reef or a hot vent current. It could be an intertidal zone, lagoon, or the deep sea.
An ecosystem can be a patch of lichen on a rock or an entire desert.
Given the amount of sunlight and rain and possibilities for shelter under the enclosed canopy, rainforest ecosystems contain the most biodiversity on the planet.
Why should we conserve biodiversity?
As John Donne famously penned, “No man is an island.” We rely upon each other. It is a simple fact.
If the food source of a frog becomes extinct, then the frog will die. One of the theories for the recent mass disappearance of amphibians is the poisoning of insects from pesticides. Another theory is the sensitivity of their skins to the increased strength of ultraviolet rays from the thinning of the ozone layer.
Either way, the snake that relies upon the frog as its only or primary food source, will starve to death.
Diversity makes species resistant
If the species is reduced to a small number, then inbreeding will compromise its genetic diversity. It will not be able to maintain in the face of stressors like disease or compromised air or water quality and it will face imminent extinction.
An example of the significance of genetic diversity to preserving a species is the inheritance of genetic mutations within a family. Many diseases are caused by genetic mutations .
It is estimated that up to 40 percent of breast cancers in men are related to mutations of a certain gene. If a man inherits mutations from both his maternal and paternal sides, he is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. If however, only one of his parents pass the genetic mutation, he has a higher probability of not developing breast cancer .
The smaller the gene pool, the more likely the species will not be able to resist the onslaught of diseases or other stressors and it will die out.
Another well-known example was the widespread devastation of all of the old vineyards in Europe in the 1850s when one tiny pest, the phyloxxera was introduced from America. American vines were resistant to the tiny root louse, but the European vitis vinifera had no tolerance to it.
The only salvation was cloning the vitis vinifera, generally recognized as producing superior wine grapes to an American rootstock. That is the only way the vitis vinifera can survive in modern times when the transportation of species across the globe cannot be well-regulated.
Many grape growers look to hybrid plants that combine the smooth flavor of the best wine grapes with hardiness traits of plants that can withstand more extreme temperatures and have developed a resistance to common fungi and pests.
In simple terms, genetic diversity gives a species a fighting chance to resist threats.
The Red Queen Hypothesis
A complex variation of genes allows organisms to adapt to changes as well. Many are too familiar with the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) virus, a super-strain virus that has developed a resistance to the most commonly used antibiotics. It is proving very difficult to control.
In the United States, five to ten percent of those hospitalized become infected with a disease contracted within the hospital and of these patients, approximately 99,000 people die annually because the virus has evolved to become stronger than the antibiotics available .
Genetic variation allows new species to evolve in response to threats such as antibiotics as in the case of the MRSA virus, or in species we are more sympathetic to, like humans, genes can adapt in response to threats like disease, predators, parasites and hopefully…pollution and climate change.
Biologists call this survival metamorphosis The Red Queen Hypothesis, after the character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who must run continually to stay in the same place.
Organisms must continually evolve, that is, stay one step ahead of their enemies, or they will be destroyed by predators or diseases.
Biodiverse ecosystems support life on all levels
Healthy ecosystems contribute to:
- clean air and climate regulation through carbon sequestration and gas exchange
- clean water through filtration
- rich soil through decomposing and cycling organic matter
- soil detoxification ad maintenance of soil structure through filtration and root stability
- plant growth control through symbiotic relationships between insects and companion plants
- food source for native animals
A healthy relationship between insects and plants allows for pollination, necessary for many fruit-bearing trees and other food sources.
An intact ecosystem provides shelter for the animals living there. Humans also rely on healthy ecosystems to provide our medicines, fuel and energy, fiber for textiles and materials for shelter and even the oxygen we need to breathe.
We study other animals in their ecosystem for their adaptation techniques as well. This study is called biomimicry. How do animals in the rainforest survive poisonous bites and fungal infections? How are spiders able to spin such string webs? How does a shark swim so swiftly and easily through the water?
The answers often yield clues as to how we can improve our lives.
Modern methods of biodiversity conservation
The primary cause of today’s loss of biodiversity is habitat alteration caused by human activities including:
- urban sprawl
- conversion of land for agribusiness
- deforestation for lumber
- mineral extraction
- overuse of recreational areas
Organizations take different approaches to biodiversity conservation.
The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) begins with a biocultural approach. It looks at an ecosystem and how the local culture relates to it. The perspective the CBC takes is to immerse itself in the local culture to understand how it relates to its ecosystem .
It then works together to support, develop and implement approaches that work to conserve the local culture, the land, its animals and waters.
Example projects are curtailing the illegal wildlife trade in southeast Asia through concerted efforts of the locals, rebuilding the cultural values of the Heiltsuk peoples in British Columbia which were torn apart when extractive industries came in and drained the abundant natural resources of the temperate rainforest, and harnessing the assistance of the local people to conserve the valuable resources of the Solomon Islands.
Machine learning – opensource knowledge sharing
Another approach to biodiversity conservation is “Machine Learning,” which really just means utilizing tools to identify where species are, how they live and what threatens their existence.
The availability of aerial views and tracking mechanisms like satellite transmitters have helped significantly in identifying how animals live, for example. Databases can be easily shared among organizations.
Opensource tools and libraries allow knowledge sharing through global input.
An example of the success of the collaborative efforts this allows is the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge sea turtle research program begun in 2005 by the CBC. Although sea turtles live over large areas of the ocean, they are endangered globally due to entanglement on fishing gear, pollution, disease and poaching and illegal trade of their eggs, meat and shells.
Understanding threats to their habitat can help direct efforts to preserve sea turtles around the world.
Several organizations pooled their resources with the CBC to study the abundance, distribution and movements of the turtles around the Atoll as well as to assess the population genetics, how the turtles relate to their ecosystem, health of the population, feeding habits and threats .
This information will help direct effective conservation techniques.
Boosting local subsistence
Another organization focuses on the impact of biodiversity conservation on the impoverished .
The concept is that the poorest among us are most dependent upon biodiversity as they live from the land on which they live, relying upon it for food, medical treatments and resources for shelter and clothing.
The impact of climate change and ecosystem alteration or elimination will impact them the most. Building a sanctuary to protect local endangered species may be counterproductive to their own subsistence and other alternatives better implemented.
These organizations study and assess the impact of diminishing biodiversity upon the natives.
- Educate the local population on the value of biodiversity
- Ally with them to stop wildlife trafficking
- Find alternative eco-friendly methods of subsistence like eco-tourism, or making products to sell from naturally grown resources
- Teach sustainable agriculture, fishing and hunting techniques
A successful program implemented by the USAID, one such organization, helped remote forest communities in Cambodia generate an average of $850 per hectare annually from harvesting and selling sustainable wood products, making the forest more valuable financially than if it were cleared for agriculture.
Another of their successful efforts was the “Fin Free Thailand” campaign, where it gathered the pledges of 180 dining establishments not to serve shark fin soup or other dishes containing shark .
Incentives and legislation
Incentive mechanisms to preserve biodiversity are also beginning to become more widespread.
For example, fishermen can apply for a “dolphin-safe certification” if they can prove that their fishing methods do not kill or injure dolphins. This certification can then be placed on the product, for example, a can of tuna, inducing the conscientious buyer to choose that product over others that are not certified.
These incentives are in place in different industries across the globe. For example, polluting industries spewing dirt air below the mandated government threshold can sell their excess “carbon credits” to another polluting industry exceeding its threshold.
Other methods of preserving biodiversity involve regulation through legislation. Many governments require environmental impact studies before a major construction project can be initiated.
Air, land and water pollution controls, as well as hunting and fishing industry regulations are essential to protecting life.
Because the biosphere is shared by all, there has been increasing recognition of the need for international cooperation in all of these areas.
In-situ and ex-situ conservation methods
The most effective way for us to conserve biodiversity with our present knowledge is probably in-situ conservation, that is the conservation of species within their natural habitats.
Sometimes direct measures can be taken to protect a species or ecosystem, like creating a wildlife refuge or bird sanctuary.
Sometimes immediate drastic measures must be taken, like with the kudzu. In some areas, invasive species, that is, species that are not natural to an environment have been introduced and taken over an ecosystem. Local efforts are taken annually in many regions of the United States to kill the kudzu which grows over and strangles all native vegetation.
In some situations, though ex-situ conservation methods are essential. That is, the conservation of biological diversity outside of the natural habitats.
We are all familiar with efforts to save the last members of endangered species by capturing them from the wild and transporting them to a zoo where many of their natural threats are removed, their health can be monitored and breeding efforts made. The goal is to grow the population and reintroduce them to their natural habitat.
Some plants that can no longer survive in nature unaided are candidates for ex-situ conservation. These are generally maintained in botanical gardens.
In addition to plant tissue, microbial cultures are collected and saved.
Tackling declining genetic diversity of our food sources
Of special concern today is the dramatic decrease of genetic diversity in agriculture which threatens the world’s food source. There are presently seven billion people on earth, with the population growing. Agribusiness has responded to the need to provide large urban and sprawling suburban areas with food, resulting in many monoculture crop environments and the loss of wild, natural strains of edible plants.
The sad truth is that ninety percent of the world’s supply is from only 100 crops and three of these – rice, maize and wheat – account for nearly 70 percent of the calories people derive from plants.
The consequences of a pest or disease eradicating one of these crops could result in a massive food shortage.
To protect against the loss of genetic diversity, a number of organizations have established trusts of seed collections like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in ostensibly protected environments across the world. Some of these are more focused on saving the seeds of crops best able to provide high nutritional content and tolerate climate change and the onslaught of pests and diseases. Some focus on plants with medicinal properties.
Additionally, private organizations for home gardeners like the Seed Savers Exchange, encourage the propagation and trading of seeds for crops that might otherwise be lost.
Sperm and ova are also stored in gene banks.
Species relocation and monitoring programs
Over-fishing and pollution has depleted many fish stocks. Successful recovery efforts involve relocating surviving fish to environments which will sustain them until the population is able to again grow to a sustainable level.
These examples look to studying and preserving extant populations. But what about the biological processes that generate continued evolution? How can we insure that the life processes that provide for changes necessary for species adaptation to a continually changing environment are protected as well?
For example, changing environmental conditions like an area becoming hotter or the rising sea may displace a species, or that species may become more tolerant to the changing environment.
We humans were once seagoing creatures. We do not fully understand how evolutionary processes take place and can only gather information and observe and try to provide or conserve habitat for the changing needs of life around us.
Species Distribution Models (also called Ecological Niche Models) are used to track and predict animal movements.
The CBC is tracking the movements of lemurs and reptiles and amphibians in Madagascar, jaguars in South America and doucs in Southeast Asia in response to climate change.
Considering the 8.1 million species or so, we believe share our planet, clearly this study of evolutionary processes is in its infancy.
The value of biodiversity for our society
Apart from the fact that our species will not survive physically without biodiversity, its dearth has spiritual implications. What are we humans after all if not also our collection of beliefs about our own identity and the world around us?
We are defined by our environments more than we may realize.
Oftentimes in discussing the spiritual value of the environment to a people we think in abstract terms like aboriginal tribes reacting to government reconstruction of waterways that destroy the very essence of their creation myth.
We can sympathize without truly identifying with what that means. We might know vaguely that we really need to get out of the city for a while, maybe visit our childhood home and family where we can smell the pine trees and hear birdsong, or at least go to the park and see flowers and grass rather than just concrete and traffic.
The values of our native environment are endemic in us and we seldom separate them as defining who we are.
Traveling to other lands and seeing the different ways people live can put this in perspective. A culture has its own music, its own lens, its own language for interpreting phenomenon. When we are out of our element, we can become disassociated, much like the proverbial “fish out of water.”
What if we couldn’t go home? What impact does it have to one living in a forest if the forest is cut down? What impact to one living in a fishing village if there are no more fish?
And across the board, what would life be like if we could adapt to survive on one food source, poor air quality, water unsafe to swim in?
What if we no longer had the opportunity to watch eagles soar, hear the calls of turkey mating, peepers singing or the hoot owl at night?
We live in a world of rich diversity and abundance. What if that diversity and abundance were destroyed?
Who would we be?