We intuitively know that declining biodiversity cannot be a good thing. Food web flows, species interactions, and ecosystem functions become increasingly disturbed, leaving entire environments vulnerable to occupation by invasive species, disease, and eventual collapse. But researchers from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis have recently discovered yet another downfall of biodiversity loss – fewer species means less chances for our planet to cope with a changing climate.
Complex ecological processes, such as mutualistic relationships between organisms, are often overlooked while evaluating consequences of climate change, yet are crucial for maintaining stable environments. For instance, plant-pollinator interactions prevent both types of species from becoming extinct. But as human activity continues to alter the world in which we live, we eliminate species vital to these interactions. The result is fewer opportunities for the environment to adjust to increased temperatures and other effects of climate change. Of course, the rapid rate at which we’re contributing to a changing climate doesn’t help matters any.
As more and more discoveries like this are made, we begin to understand just how many micro-scale ecosystem functions contribute to environmental regulation. At the same time, however, it reminds us of just how much we’ve yet to learn about our very own (and only) home. I think it’s fair to say that when gasoline was first used in vehicles, or when coal-burning factories were first built, interactions like plant-pollinator mutualism were not topics of concern. Unfortunately, we don’t often discover these relationships until years after large-scale change is made to the environment.
This also isn’t to say that increased biodiversity automatically mitigates all effects of a warming planet. Increased greenhouse gas emissions will impact our land, atmosphere, and oceans regardless of species diversity. So far, we seem to be finding new, complex interactions within our ecosystems that change the way we think about climate change. Ideally, we will use this to our advantage as opposed to feeling helpless about our changing planet.