Origin of the word
Biodiversity is a neologism from biology and diversity. The Science Division of The Nature Conservancy used the term "natural diversity" in a 1975 study, "The Preservation of Natural Diversity." The term biological diversity was used even before that by conservation scientists like Robert E. Jenkins and Thomas Lovejoy. The word biodiversity itself may have been coined by W.G. Rosen in 1985 while planning the National Forum on Biological Diversity organized by the National Research Council (NRC) which was to be held in 1986, and first appeared in print in 1988 when entomologist E. O. Wilson used it as the title of the proceedings of that forum. The word biodiversity was deemed more effective in terms of communication than biological diversity
Since 1986 the term and the concept has achieved widespread use among biologists, environmentalists, political leaders, and concerned citizens worldwide. It is generally used to equate to a concern for the natural environment and nature conservation. This use has coincided with the increasing concern over rising extinction rates observed in the last decades of the 20th century.
The definition of biodiversity has morphed over time as the word has become more widely used. This results in some confusion when people compare the "biodiversity" of different places or ecosystems, as they may be using different definitions of the term.
A simple definition is "the variation of life at all levels of biological organization".
A second definition holds that biodiversity is a measure of the relative diversity among organisms present in different ecosystems. "Diversity" in this definition includes diversity within a species and among species, and comparative diversity among ecosystems.
A third definition sometimes used by ecologists is the "totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region". An advantage of this definition is that it seems to describe most circumstances and present a unified view of the traditional three levels at which biodiversity has been identified:
- genetic diversity - diversity of genes within a species. There is a genetic variability among the populations and the individuals of the same species. (See also population genetics.)
- species diversity - diversity among species in an ecosystem. "Biodiversity hotspots" are excellent examples of species diversity.
- ecosystem diversity - diversity at a higher level of organization, the ecosystem, and describing the variety of ecosystems on Earth.
The 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro defined "biodiversity" as "the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, 'inter alia', terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems". This is, in fact, the closest thing to a single legally accepted definition of biodiversity, since it is the definition adopted by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Biodiversity is a broad concept, so a variety of objective measures have been created to empirically measure biodiversity. Each measure of biodiversity relates to a particular use of the data.
Biodiversity is often measured as the number of species, or taxonomic richness, of a geographic area. Whittaker described three common metrics to measure species-level biodiversity, emphasizing either species richness or species evenness:
- Species richness - the total number of species.
- Simpson index - incorporates both richness and abundance / evenness of species
- Shannon index - incorporates both richness and abundance / evenness of species
Three other indices are often used by ecologists:
- Alpha diversity refers to diversity within a particular area, community or ecosystem, and is measured by counting the number of taxa within the ecosystem (usually species)
- Beta diversity is species diversity between ecosystems; this involves comparing the number of taxa that are unique to each of the ecosystems.
- Gamma diversity is a measure of the overall diversity for different ecosystems within a region.
Biodiversity is not distributed evenly on Earth. It is consistently richer in the tropics and in other localized regions such as the California Floristic Province. As one approaches polar regions one generally finds fewer species. The drivers of species diversity are not entirely understood, but most scientists agree that it depends on climate, topography, soils, and the geologic history of the region. Large numbers of the Earth's species are formally classified as endangered with extinction. Moreover, most scientists estimate that millions more species are actually endangered which have not yet been formally recognized. As of 2006, about 40 percent of the 40,177 species assessed using the IUCN Red List criteria, are now listed as threatened with extinction - a total of 16,119 species.
Some broad patterns of biodiversity are known. The number of species generally is highest in the tropics, with a decline in richness as you move towards the poles (increasing latitude). Forests also tend to have higher biodiversity than other ecosystems. The pattern is not a simple one though, for there are some tropical areas, such as the Sahara desert, that have relatively low biodiversity. As well, there are some Mediterranean type ecosystems outside the tropics that have exceptional levels of plant diversity (e.g., Cape Floristic Province, California Floristic Province).
A biodiversity hotspot is a region with a high level of endemic species where most of the natural vegetation has been lost. These biodiversity hotspots were first identified by Dr. Norman Myers in two articles in the scientific journal The Environmentalist. Hotspots unfortunately tend to also have very dense human populations, leading to threats to their many endemic species. As a result of the rapidly growing human populations, development pressure in many of these areas is increasing dramatically.
Most of these hotspots are in the tropics and most of them are forests. For example, Brazil's Atlantic Coastal Forest contains roughly 20,000 plant species, 1350 vertebrates, and millions of insects, about half of which occur nowhere else in the world. The island of Madagascar, including the unique Madagascar dry deciduous forests and lowland rainforests, is one of the most exceptional biodiversity hotspots. It possess a very high level of species endemism and biodiversity. This is the result of the island having separated from mainland Africa 65 million years ago, so most of the species and ecosystems have evolved independently, producing many unique species.
Many regions of high biodiversity (as well as high endemism) arise in very specialized habitats that require unusual adaptation mechanisms. For example the peat bogs of Northern Europe and the alvar regions such as the Stora Alvaret in Oland, Sweden host a large diversity of plants and animals, many of which are not found elsewhere.
Biodiversity found on Earth today is the result of 4 billion years of evolution. The origin of life is not well known to science, though limited evidence suggests that life may already have been well-established only a few 100 million years after the formation of the Earth. Until approximately 600 million years ago, all life consisted of bacteria and similar single-celled organisms.
The history of biodiversity during the Phanerozoic (the last 540 million years), starts with rapid growth during the Cambrian explosion—a period during which nearly every phylum of multicellular organisms first appeared. Over the next 400 million years or so, global diversity showed little overall trend, but was marked by periodic, massive losses of diversity classified as mass extinction events.
The apparent biodiversity shown in the fossil record suggests that the last few million years include the period of greatest biodiversity in the Earth's history. However, not all scientists support this view, since there is considerable uncertainty as to how strongly the fossil record is biased by the greater availability and preservation of recent geologic sections. Some (e.g. Alroy et al. 2001) argue that corrected for sampling artifacts, modern biodiversity is not much different from biodiversity 300 million years ago. Estimates of the present global macroscopic species diversity vary from 2 million to 100 million species, with a best estimate of somewhere near 10 million.
Most biologists agree however that the period since the emergence of humans is part of a new mass extinction, the Holocene extinction event, caused primarily by the impact humans are having on the environment. At present, the number of species estimated to have gone extinct as a result of human action is still far smaller than are observed during the major mass extinctions of the geological past. However, it has been argued that the present rate of extinction is sufficient to create a major mass extinction in less than 100 years. Others dispute this and suggest that the present rate of extinctions could be sustained for many thousands of years before the loss of biodiversity matches the more than 20% losses seen in past global extinction events.
New species are regularly discovered (on average about three new species of birds each year) and many, though discovered, are not yet classified (an estimate states that about 40% of freshwater fish from South America are not yet classified). Most of the terrestrial diversity is found in tropical forests.
There are a multitude of benefits of biodiversity in the sense of one diverse group aiding another such as:
Resistance to catastrophe
Monoculture, the lack of biodiversity, was a contributing factor to several agricultural disasters in history, including the Irish Potato Famine, the European wine industry collapse in the late 1800s, and the US Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic of 1970.  See also: Agricultural biodiversity
Higher biodiversity also controls the spread of certain diseases as e.g. virusses will need adapt itself with every new species.
Food and drink
Biodiversity provides food for humans. About 80 percent of our food supply comes from just 20 kinds of plants. Humans use at least 40,000 species of plants and animals a day. Although many kinds of animals are utilized as food, again most consumption is focused on a few species. There are also many people in the world who depend on these species for their food, shelter, and clothing.
There is vast untapped potential for increasing the range of food products suitable for human consumption, provided that the high present extinction rate can be stopped.
A significant proportion of drugs are derived, directly or indirectly, from biological sources; in most cases these medicines can not presently be synthesized in a laboratory setting. About 40% if the pharmaceuticals used in the US are found from natural compounds found in plants, animals, and microorganism. Moreover, only a small proportion of the total diversity of plants has been thoroughly investigated for potential sources of new drugs. Many medicines and antibiotics are also derived from microorganisms.
A wide range of industrial materials are derived directly from biological resources. These include building materials, fibers, dyes, resins, gums, adhesives, rubber and oil. There is enormous potential for further research into sustainably utilizing materials from a wider diversity of organisms.
Through the field of bionics, a lot of technological advancement has been done which may not have been the case without a rich biodiversity. (See also: Bionics)
For certain economical crops (e.g. foodcrops, ...), wild varieties of the domesticated species can be reintroduced to form a better variety than the previous (domesticated) species. The economic impact is gigantic, for even crops as common as the potato (which was bred through only one variety, brought back from the Inca), a lot more can come from these species. Wild varieties of the potato will all suffer enormously through the effects of climate change. A report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) describes the huge economic loss. Rice, which has been improved for thousands of years by man, can through the same process regain some of its nutritional value that has been lost since (a project is already being carried out to do just this).
Other ecological services
Biodiversity provides many ecosystem services that are often not readily visible. It plays a part in regulating the chemistry of our atmosphere and water supply. Biodiversity is directly involved in recycling nutrients and providing fertile soils. Experiments with controlled environments have shown that humans cannot easily build ecosystems to support human needs; for example insect pollination cannot be mimicked by man-made construction, and that activity alone represents tens of billions of dollars in ecosystem services per annum to mankind.
Leisure, cultural and aesthetic value
Many people derive value from biodiversity through leisure activities such as enjoying a walk in the countryside, birdwatching or natural history programs on television.
Biodiversity has inspired musicians, painters, sculptors, writers and other artists. Many cultural groups view themselves as an integral part of the natural world and show respect for other living organisms.
During the last century, erosion of biodiversity has been increasingly observed. Some studies show that about one of eight known plant species is threatened with extinction. Some estimates put the loss at up to 140,000 species per year (based on Species-area theory) and subject to discussion. This figure indicates unsustainable ecological practices, because only a small number of species come into being each year. Almost all scientists acknowledge that the rate of species loss is greater now than at any time in human history, with extinctions occurring at rates hundreds of times higher than background extinction rates.
Destruction of habitats
Most of the species extinctions from 1000 AD to 2000 AD are due to human activities, in particular destruction of plant and animal habitats. Raised rates of extinction are being driven by human consumption of organic resources, especially related to tropical forest destruction. While most of the species that are becoming extinct are not food species, their biomass is converted into human food when their habitat is transformed into pasture, cropland, and orchards. It is estimated that more than 40% of the Earth's biomass is tied up in only the few species that represent humans, livestock and crops. Because an ecosystem decreases in stability as its species are made extinct, these studies warn that the global ecosystem is destined for collapse if it is further reduced in complexity. Factors contributing to loss of biodiversity are: overpopulation, deforestation, pollution (air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination) and global warming or climate change, driven by human activity. These factors, while all stemming from overpopulation, produce a cumulative impact upon biodiversity.
Some characterize loss of biodiversity not as ecosystem degradation but by conversion to trivial standardized ecosystems (e.g., monoculture following deforestation). In some countries lack of property rights or access regulation to biotic resources necessarily leads to biodiversity loss (degradation costs having to be supported by the community).
A September 14, 2007 study conducted by the National Science Foundation found that biodiversity and genetic diversity are dependent upon each other--that diversity within a species is necessary to maintain diversity among species, and vice versa. According to the lead researcher in the study, Dr. Richard Lankauof, "If any one type is removed from the system, the cycle can break down, and the community becomes dominated by a single species."
The rich diversity of unique species across many parts of the world exist only because they are separated by barriers, particularly large rivers, seas, oceans, mountains and deserts from other species of other land masses, particularly the highly fecund, ultra-competitive, generalist "super-species". These are barriers that could never be crossed by natural processes, except for many millions of years in the future through continental drift. However humans have invented ships and airplanes, and now have the power to bring into contact species that never have met in their evolutionary history, and on a time scale of days, unlike the centuries that historically have accompanied major animal migrations.
The widespread introduction of exotic species by humans is a potent threat to biodiversity. When exotic species are introduced to ecosystems and establish self-sustaining populations, the endemic species in that ecosystem, that have not evolved to cope with the exotic species, may not survive. The exotic organisms may be either predators, parasites, or simply aggressive species that deprive indigenous species of nutrients, water and light. These exotic or invasive species often have features due to their evolutionary background and environment that makes them competitive, and similarly makes endemic species defenceless and/or uncompetitive against these exotic species.
As a consequence of the above, if humans continue to combine species from different ecoregions, there is the potential that the world's ecosystems will end up dominated by relatively a few, aggressive, cosmopolitan "super-species".
- Other 'Decline in amphibian populations'
Declines in amphibian populations have been observed since 1980s. These might critically threaten global biodiversity.
Purebred naturally evolved region specific wild species can be threatened with extinction in a big way through the process of Genetic Pollution i.e. uncontrolled hybridization, introgression and Genetic swamping which leads to homogenization or replacement of local genotypes as a result of either a numerical and/or fitness advantage of introduced plant or animal. Nonnative species can bring about a form of extinction of native plants and animals by hybridization and introgression either through purposeful introduction by humans or through habitat modification, bringing previously isolated species into contact. These phenomena can be especially detrimental for rare species coming into contact with more abundant ones where the abundant ones can interbreed with them swamping the entire rarer gene pool creating hybrids thus driving the entire original purebred native stock to complete extinction. Attention has to be focused on the extent of this under appreciated problem that is not always apparent from morphological (outward appearance) observations alone. Some degree of gene flow may be a normal, evolutionarily constructive process, and all constellations of genes and genotypes cannot be preserved however, hybridization with or without introgression may, nevertheless, threaten a rare species' existence.
Hybridization, Genetic engineering, Genetic pollution and Food security
- See also: food security
In agriculture and animal husbandry, green revolution popularized the use of conventional hybridization to increase yield many folds by creating "High yielding varieties". Often the handful of breeds of plants and animals hybridized originated in developed countries and were further hybridized with local verities, in the rest of the developing world, to create high yield strains resistant to local climate and diseases. Local governments and industry since have been pushing hybridization with such zeal that several of the wild and indigenous breeds evolved locally over thousands of years having high resistance to local extremes in climate and immunity to diseases etc. have already become extinct or are in grave danger of becoming so in the near future. Due to complete disuse because of un-profitability and uncontrolled intentional, compounded with unintentional cross-pollination and crossbreeding (genetic pollution) formerly huge gene pools of various wild and indigenous breeds have collapsed causing widespread genetic erosion and genetic pollution resulting in great loss in genetic diversity and biodiversity as a whole.
A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using the genetic engineering techniques generally known as recombinant DNA technology. Genetic Engineering today has become another serious and alarming cause of genetic pollution because artificially created and genetically engineered plants and animals in laboratories, which could never have evolved in nature even with conventional hybridization, can live and breed on their own and what is even more alarming interbreed with naturally evolved wild varieties. Genetically Modified (GM) crops today have become a common source for genetic pollution, not only of wild varieties but also of other domesticated varieties derived from relatively natural hybridization.
It is being said that genetic erosion coupled with genetic pollution is destroying that needed unique genetic base thereby creating an unforeseen hidden crisis which will result in a severe threat to our food security for the future when diverse genetic material will cease to exist to be able to further improve or hybridize weakening food crops and livestock against more resistant diseases and climatic changes.
The conservation of biological diversity has become a global concern. Although not everybody agrees on extent and significance of current extinction, most consider biodiversity essential. There are basically two main types of conservation options, in-situ conservation and ex-situ conservation. In-situ is usually seen as the ideal conservation strategy. However, its implementation is sometimes infeasible. For example, destruction of rare or endangered species' habitats sometimes requires ex-situ conservation efforts. Furthermore, ex-situ conservation can provide a backup solution to in-situ conservation projects. Some believe both types of conservation are required to ensure proper preservation. An example of an in-situ conservation effort is the setting-up of protection areas. Examples of ex-situ conservation efforts, by contrast, would be planting germplasts in seedbanks, or growing the Wollemi Pine in nurseries. Such efforts allow the preservation of large populations of plants with minimal genetic erosion.
At national levels a Biodiversity Action Plan is sometimes prepared to state the protocols necessary to protect an individual species. Usually this plan also details extant data on the species and its habitat. In the USA such a plan is called a Recovery Plan.
The threat to biological diversity was among the hot topics discussed at the UN World Summit for Sustainable Development, in hope of seeing the foundation of a Global Conservation Trust to help maintain plant collections.
Biodiversity is beginning to be evaluated and its evolution analysed (through observations, inventories, conservation...) as well as being taken into account in political and judicial decisions .
- The relationship between law and ecosystems is very ancient and has consequences for biodiversity. It is related to property rights, both private and public. It can define protection for threatened ecosystems, but also some rights and duties (for example, fishing rights, hunting rights).
- Law regarding species is a more recent issue. It defines species that must be protected because they may be threatened by extinction. Some people question application of these laws. The U.S. Endangered Species Act is an example of an attempt to address the "law and species" issue.
- Laws regarding gene pools are only about a century old. While the genetic approach is not new (domestication, plant traditional selection methods), progress made in the genetic field in the past 20 years have led to a tightening of laws in this field. With the new technologies of genetic analysis and genetic engineering, people are going through gene patenting, processes patenting, and a totally new concept of genetic resources. A very hot debate today seeks to define whether the resource is the gene, the organism itself, or its DNA.
The 1972 UNESCO convention established that biological resources, such as plants, were the common heritage of mankind. These rules probably inspired the creation of great public banks of genetic resources, located outside the source-countries.
New global agreements (e.g.Convention on Biological Diversity), now give sovereign national rights over biological resources (not property). The idea of static conservation of biodiversity is disappearing and being replaced by the idea of dynamic conservation, through the notion of resource and innovation.
The new agreements commit countries to conserve biodiversity, develop resources for sustainability and share the benefits resulting from their use. Under new rules, it is expected that bioprospecting or collection of natural products has to be allowed by the biodiversity-rich country, in exchange for a share of the benefits.
Sovereignty principles can rely upon what is better known as Access and Benefit Sharing Agreements (ABAs). The Convention on Biodiversity spirit implies a prior informed consent between the source country and the collector, to establish which resource will be used and for what, and to settle on a fair agreement on benefit sharing. Bioprospecting can become a type of biopiracy when those principles are not respected.
Uniform approval for use of biodiversity as a legal standard has not been achieved, however. At least one legal commentator has argued that biodiversity should not be used as a legal standard, arguing that the multiple layers of scientific uncertainty inherent in the concept of biodiversity will cause administrative waste and increase litigation without promoting preservation goals. See Fred Bosselman, A Dozen Biodiversity Puzzles, 12 N.Y.U. Environmental Law Journal 364 (2004)
The notion that there is 'vast untapped potential' for reducing mankinds dependence on a relatively small number of domesticated plant and animal species should be challenged. Jared Diamond, based on studies of the domestication of plants and animals, argued that the rarity of species suitable for domestication and their occurrence in just a few parts of the world, determined the limited number of locations in which major civilizations could arise. In recent times there have been many studies of minor food sources, but none of these sources have subsequently become major food crops.
The field of biodiversity research (inevitably) suffers from natural human egocentric "myopic" cognitive biases. It has often been criticized for being overly defined by the personal interests of the founders (i.e. terrestrial mammals) giving a narrow focus, rather than extending to other areas where it could be useful. This is termed the founder effect by Norse and Irish, (1996). (This was a play on words: the founder effect in ecology typically refers to the genetic outcome when a small population establishes an isolated breeding group). France and Rigg reviewed the biodiversity literature in 1998 and found that there was a significant lack of papers studying marine ecosystems, leading them to dub marine biodiversity research the sleeping hydra. More work has been carried out for accessible, diverse coastal systems such as coral reefs than for inaccessible, species-poor deep sea areas.
It has been easier to mobilise public opinion and national legislation for the terrestrial realm, which has higher visibility and falls within countries' territorial boundaries. Marine conservation involves having to pioneer new and international mechanisms of protection as well as solving methodological problems in marine biology relating to marine ecosystem classification and data-gathering on some of the earth's most difficult species to access and monitor.
Biodiversity researcher Sean Nee points out that the vast majority of Earth's biodiversity is microbial, and that contemporary biodiversity physics is "firmly fixated on the visible world" (Nee uses "visible" as a synonym for macroscopic). For example, microbial life is very much more metabolically and environmentally diverse than multicellular life (see extremophile). Nee has stated: "On the tree of life, based on analyses of small-subunit ribosomal RNA, visible life consists of barely noticeable twigs. This should not be surprising — invisible life had at least three billion years to diversify and explore evolutionary space before the 'visibles' arrived".
The reply to this, however, is that biodiversity conservation has never focused exclusively on visible (in this sense) species. From the very beginning, the classification and conservation of natural communities or ecosystem types has been a central part of the effort. The thought behind this has been that since invisible (in this sense) diversity is, due to lack of taxonomy, impossible to treat in the same manner as visible diversity, the best that can be done is to preserve a diversity of ecosystem types, thereby preserving as well as possible the diversity of invisible organisms.
- Amazonian forest
- Ecological Economics
- Canadian Biodiversity Information Network
- Conservation Commons
- Conservation ethic
- Convention on Biological Diversity
- Forest farming
- Ewens sampling formula
- Gene pool
- Genetic Pollution
- Genetic Erosion
- Global 200
- Green Revolution
- Habitat fragmentation
- Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis
- International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
- International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
- Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries (LMMC), a group of 17 megadiverse countries, formed in February 2002
- Megadiverse countries
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- Millennium Seed Bank Project
- National Biodiversity Network
- Ongoing mass extinction of species
- Pollinator decline
- Seed bank
- Unified neutral theory of biodiversity
- United States environmental law
- Wildlife preserve
- World Conservation Monitoring Centre
- World Conservation Union
- World Network of Biosphere Reserves
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- World Map of Biodiversity an interactive map from the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre
- GLOBIO, an ongoing programme to map the past, current and future impacts of human activities on biodiversity
- The significance of Vavilov’s scientific expeditions and ideas for development and use of legume genetic resources
- Diversity of lupin (Lupinus L.) based on biochemical composition
- Climate Change Threatens Wild Relatives of Key Crops
- Biodiversity Heritage Library www.biodiversitylibrary.org - Open access digital library of taxonomic literature
- DMOZ www.dmoz.org - Open Directory Project
- ERIC Digests www.ericdigests.org - Teaching about Biodiversity
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- Inter Press Service  - One Planet - 1.4 Million Species : : Reports and analysis about biodiversity