Biodiversity

Why should we care about biodiversity? In a world of rapid change, isn't it nice to have some sameness?

In nature, sameness is referred to as a "monoculture". While it may be pretty, convenient and efficient -- it isn't as strong and resilient as a diverse ecosystem. Plants or animals that are susceptible to a form of severe weather, a certain pest, or a specific disease can be more easily wiped out when a particular problem attacks their monoculture environment. Without biodiversity they will need to be supported by external efforts (such as spraying of pesticides, irrigation, fertilization) to survive longterm.

A related issue is that many plants and animals rely on other life forms to support them. One form of this is a parasite: living on or in an organism of another species, and obtaining food and nutrients from that organism. Another form is reciprocity: where organisms both give and benefit from the others. In a biodiverse ecosystem, you will see a complex web of relationships among organisms that allow them all to survive and flourish.

Biodiversity Index
So, if biodiversity is so good, how do we measure it? What counts? Try this activity to assess the biodiversity index of different ecosystems.

Do You Know my Friend Douglas?
This fun activity demonstrates the resilience of a diverse ecosystem in comparison to a monoculture.


What Convinces You?
Stanford University conservation biologist Gretchen Daily popularized the concept of ecosystem services in the 1990’s. This is the concept that our natural resources have value, that preserving biodiversity is a worthy goal. Once a species is extinct, all members dead, and its contributions to our planet are gone. Because the life cycles of many species are intertwined, losing one species often results in other species becoming endangered or extinct, with the degradation or loss of an ecosystem. Below are some of the most common values or reasons given for maintaining a biodiverse world. After you review them, discuss with your family and friends the reasons that are most (or least) convincing:

  • Economic: people have been making a living off natural resources for centuries.
  • Food: our ability to fish, hunt and gather wild foods (such as berries, rice, mushrooms)
  • Cures: organisms are used to make pharmaceuticals and cures for diseases
  • Health: humans are less stressed and healthier when they can see and experience nature
  • Culture: many plants and animals are revered in the belief systems of a culture
  • Recreation: humans play and derive pleasure from hiking and being in a wild and diverse natural setting
  • Planetary Stability: research indicates that more diverse ecosystems are better able to survive the stresses of environmental change
  • Environmental Quality: intact diverse ecosystems perform needed functions such as filtering impurities in air and water, preventing erosion, creating new nutrients in our soil, and moderating temperatures
  • Intrinsic value: animals and plants have a right to live, for their own sake
  • Preservation of options: there is so much we don't know, a species that appears to have little value today may be essential to solving a major problem in the future

 

Community Service Learning Opportunities
Want to help address the issues of biodiversity in your community? There are many things you can do. Some suggestions are:

  • Volunteer at a local "Bioblitz", a count of all living organisms in a specific location in a 24 hour time period. Usually held in late April or May. If you cannot find one in your community, consider approaching a local park or government agency about sponsoring one.
  • Contact the Audubon Society or other organizations to participate in annual bird and butterfly counts. These usually occur during periods of migration, so timing may vary with your location.
  • Volunteer at a local park or your community government to create a native plants garden or "preserve". This may include the removal of non-native and invasive species which overtake the native species, making it difficult for a native ecosystem to survive.
  • Assist in the cleaning up of a river or lake; trash and runoff that results in excess nutrients or pollutants entering the water can impair organisms' ability to survive.

What Do You Think?
Organisms alter environments. They take what they need from the ecosystem, or they change it so they can better function in that space. Humans in particular "mark" and alter the environment, either intentionally or unintentionally. Our cities, suburbs, highways and farms are examples that come to mind immediately. But even our natural areas, such as national and urban parks, are products of human intervention. We work to keep them in a natural state.

Author(s), Presenter(s): 
Trudy Dunham and Jay Staker
Year published or updated: 
2012