Biodiversity is a word that we seem to be hearing more and more these days, but what is it really?
Maybe we can start by breaking it down… first, ‘bio‘ stems from a Greek word meaning ‘life‘, and ‘diversity‘ means a variety of different things. So, biological diversity or ‘biodiversity’ refers to the variety of life on Earth. Of course this is no small thing! It includes all of our plants, animals, algae, fungi and more, not to mention the world of micro-organisms that we can’t even see. In addition to this, biodiversity also refers to the complex of interconnecting ecosystems within which all these living things exist. OK, so now we have another word to decipher – ‘ecosystem’. The Oxford Dictionary defines an ecosystem as “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment”.
So what does this all mean for us as human beings? Well, given that we too are part of life on earth and we are also live within ecosystems, then surely this makes us a part of this intricate web of life too? So let’s learn more about it…
There are three important elements of biodiversity:
- Ecosystem diversity
Ecosystems are everywhere and cover all of our landscapes, supporting many different species. Without variety among our ecosystems we cannot support a variety of life. Protection of as many of these ecosystems as we can is therefore vital in the protection of the diversity of life on earth.
- Species diversity
This is of course the variety of plants, animals and other life found in an area. Of course some areas have higher species diversity than others. Australia is what is known as a ‘megadiversity‘ hotspot and, because of our isolation, over 80% of our plants and mammals, and 45% of our birds are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on earth!
- Genetic diversity
This refers to the diversity of the genes found within a species, and determines the characteristics which enable a species to adapt and survive as the environment around them changes. Where populations are cut off from one another, preventing genes from flowing between areas, we see less genetic diversity and greater risk of extinction.
An Example: Sadly in the 1800’s the Victorian koala population was decimated by hunting, disease and land clearing. A small number of Victoria’s koalas were bred in captivity and released back into the wild where they continued to multiply. The end result of this was a population with a very limited gene pool which is now high susceptibility to changes in the environment and other threats such as disease.
So where do we as humans fit into all of this? Well, living and active ecosystems such as wildlife corridors, waterways and wetlands all intersect with human populations on a regular basis. Is this a problem? Well unfortunately a lot of the time it can be as this means that plants and animals are increasingly coming into contact with things that are a threat to their survival – like land-clearing, predation by domestic animals, injury and death from being hit by cars, stress and disease.
Can we do anything to help? Absolutely! Through active environmental management activities such as habitat protection, restoration and/or replacement we can protect and replenish habitat and so safeguard and improve biodiversity. And of course, awareness is the first step!
So back to the question: “Is biodiversity important?” Well, this statement from the Australian Conservation Foundation is a wonderfully simple and practical way to look at this:
“Nature silently works away, day and night, producing the water, wildlife, oxygen, soils and crop pollination that produces the food Australians depend on. There is no factory or technology capable of producing so much of value at so little cost”.
If “variety is the spice of life”, then biodiversity is surely the most precious spice on Earth!
CITATIONS http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/what_is_biodiversity/genetic_diversity/  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ecosystem  http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/what_is_biodiversity/  http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/05/20/3999750.htm  http://www.acfonline.org.au/biodiversity-fund