Biodiversity 101

Photo by Trees for Cyprus |

When I sat down to my first class about biodiversity, and looked at the course outline, I knew that I would enjoy myself. Looking back, that was an understatement – it’s become a passion of mine and it was a springboard for my academic career.


As an ecologist and an environmentalist, it’s easy to see that biodiversity is something that needs to be addressed, but it isn’t always our number one concern. With environmental issues like climate change and energy consumption, biodiversity often takes a number in the waiting room. Is this due to a conscious ranking of these problems? Personally, I think an increased awareness of this will show us how serious this issue can be if we don’t seek remediation.


What is biodiversity? Biodiversity is all about species. It’s about the number of each species we have, and about the number of organisms in each species. It’s about having a variety of trees, bugs, and animals in forests, and about varieties of plankton and sea creatures in the oceans. However, it’s about genetics too. How similar is one maple tree to another? How closely related are all of the lions on the African savannah?


The key to biodiversity is variability. Plants and animals alike need this to survive. Everything in our natural world is an intricate web, with one interaction benefiting many organisms. If we lose species, we lose this beautiful complexity, starting a cascade of destruction to environments that were once pristine.


One common myth about biodiversity is that it’s all about the pandas and turtles that are endangered. It’s not. There are tons of animals and plants that need help just as much as the others that make it to the front page of the newspaper. Understanding this is already a huge step in understand what biodiversity truly means.


Why care about biodiversity? The problem with a loss of biodiversity truly has many anthropogenic reasons. It has been made clear through the media that losing the environment due to our actions has moral obligations. Do we really have the right to make species extinct? Although extinction is a natural process, we’ve done much more harm to the environment than any other species. It’s easy to see that we need to replenish what we take form the natural world.


Also, biodiversity permits us a chance to learn for our own good. The concept of biomimicry is a one where we take what ecology and the natural environment has created and apply it to ourselves. For example, sharkskin is made of denticles, or small, teeth-like scales, which help prevent bacteria buildup and allow for a truly hygienic surface. The same concept has been applied in hospitals in order to provide a hygienic surface where bacteria can’t grow. In general, we’ve learned too much from the natural world to give it up. Losing biodiversity means that we lose chances to learn and improve our own lives.


What can we do? Fortunately, this topic is on the rise. 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, as launched by the United Nations (and, Edward Norton is the Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity!). To find out more about what you can do to help preserve biodiversity, check out the website for the International Year of Biodiversity.


Efforts to bring an increased awareness to this issue have begun. I couldn’t be more excited to see my classroom knowledge being applied worldwide.