Let’s Talk Biodiversity: What is it?

The question “what is biodiversity” seems complicated, yet the answer is so simple. Biodiversity, or biological diversity, refers to the variety of life on Earth. It encompasses the different species of plants, animals, and microorganisms, as well as the ecosystems and habitats in which they live. Biodiversity is important for the health and stability of our planet, as it helps to maintain the delicate balance of life on Earth. It is all around us, be that in the trees we plant, the animals that live in or feed on those trees, the microorganisms that enrich the soil and the ecosystems that develop. This includes genetic diversity, evolutionary diversity, functional diversity and ecosystem diversity. No matter if the living organism is a tiny bacteria or an iconic species like the polar bear or orangutan, from bacteria to mammals, to fish, forests and fungi, each piece of the biodiversity puzzle plays a vital role. Without even addressing the spiritual and cultural importance, biodiversity’s ecological role in our everyday lives is impossible to overlook. Clean water, food, medicine, building materials, clothes; the list is endless; making biodiversity one of the most important assets we have on Earth.

Sadly, as we know, nature is declining. An estimated 99.99% of species that have lived on this planet are already extinct, which is a horrifying figure but it merely shows the enormous diversity of species planet earth has hosted so far. Most of this loss was not man-made but before humanity’s time. As Kew Garden’s Alexandre Antonelli describes in his book “The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity,” if planet Earth’s existence were on a clock, the 1950s would be 1.3 milliseconds to midnight. This is the moment that the transformation of nature became dramatic. In the decades following, a quarter of all rainforests were lost, 1.4 trillion tonnes of CO2 were emitted and five billion people were added to the world’s population. With this increased pressure, species are now disappearing faster than at any other time in human history, with species becoming increasingly rare on every continent and in every sea and ocean.

One of the unsung heroes of biodiversity is soil. Soil is home to over a quarter of all living species on earth, just one teaspoon of soil could contain thousands of species, millions of individuals and a hundred meters of fungal networks. Soil biodiversity performs a variety of functions. It processes waste organic matter to sustain life above the ground, from plants to animals to humans; it regulates the carbon flux and the water cycle; it keeps pests at bay and decontaminates polluted land, and it provides raw materials for medicine and other uses. Healthy soil is really important, meaning unhealthy soil can be a good indicator of the health of the planet. Changes in soil biodiversity can have significant effects on biodiversity above the ground, yet it is thought only 1% of soil micro-organism species have been identified by scientists. This is one of the fascinating things about biodiversity, some of the most important aspects of it are still not fully understood, and sometimes the least glamorous species are propping up an entire ecosystem. 

However, when it comes to boosting biodiversity, it is complex. We can focus on singular species, but the real area that needs energy and attention is diversity. It isn’t simply about ensuring there is more of one particular species. Genetic and functional diversity are imperative to ensuring a healthy ecosystem. Genetic diversity, as opposed to just species diversity, prepares species for changes and prevents extinction. Functional diversity affects the way species interact with other species and in turn, their environment. These are two areas of biodiversity that are hugely affected by climate change. 

The rapid change in temperatures results in visible changes in the functions of species over short periods of time. It is happening faster than species can evolve. An example can be seen in the timing of the seasons, which disrupts the phenology of species. Flowers rely on pollinators such as bees to spread their pollen, and pollinators need the flowers to feed. If a flower gets confused by an abnormally warm February and thinks spring has sprung, then it won’t be in sync with its partner in pollination. This is equally bad for the pollinator as by the time they are ready to pollinate, the flower is long gone for the season. The delicate timing of the functions of these species is therefore hugely affected by even the smallest climatic changes. This is just one small window into the complex system of biodiversity and how impossible it is to focus on one singular aspect of such symbiotic relationships.

One-fifth of all species may face extinction in the coming decades. Scientists have spent centuries cataloging life on earth, and have discovered 3.5 million species that have been scientifically described. Of these, about half are supposed to have been named twice, meaning roughly 1.8 million “valid” species have been discovered so far. Despite this, there are almost certainly many species that have not yet been discovered, and now many scientists fear that some of them will be lost before we even know what they are. Currently, more than 300 mammal species are at risk of extinction, with the koala recently being added to the endangered list. Between 2016 and 2017, more than half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef died due to the increasing temperature of the sea. As this biodiversity crisis continues to intensify, the goals that need to be reached to reverse this terrifying decline need to be achieved in parallel with climate goals. 

Defining biodiversity inspires admiration for nature, how intertwined it is and each species reliance on one another for survival. We can no longer think of biodiversity as singular iconic species needing protection. Boosting biodiversity means looking after the microbes in the soil, the flowers that feed insects, the insects that small mammals and birds feed on, the trees those animals live in, the fungal network that aids the survival of those trees and the larger creatures that rely on smaller creatures for food. It’s called a food chain because it is indeed a chain, but it is also a survival chain reliant on healthy species all across the line, a delicate balance that needs the exact right amount of each to keep the system healthy. Biodiversity means all life on earth, and it needs some serious attention holistically for us to start making an impact and boosting biodiversity so it is visibly healthy once again.