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International Biodiversity Day
By Ahnika LeRoy, Contributor

Biodiversity1The United Nations has proclaimed May 22 to be the International Day for Biological Diversity  in order to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. Biodiversity is traditionally defined as the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem, but this definition only scratches the surface.  There are two types of biodiversity, genetic and ecological.

Genetic Biodiversity is the variation in genes that exists within a species.  For example, dogs are part of the same species, but different genes can dictate whether they are of a small dog variety or a large dog build.  There can be immense variations in genes, including causes for hereditary illnesses. Genetic Biodiversity can be seen in many different species of animals including humans.

Ecological Biodiversity is the diversity of ecosystems and habitats.   Many forests are different because different types of species found in ecosystems. Variables like the temperature, rainfall, and food sources also differ in various habitats around the world, producing a wide range of ecosystems.  Even seemingly similar ecosystems have a lot of differences that makes every habitat unique.

The world has many undiscovered species with billions of different genetic attributes. According to the National Wildlife Foundation, researchers have estimated that there are between 3 – 30 million species on Earth, with multiple studies suggesting that there may be over 100 million species on Earth.   We have only identified only 1.7 million species.

Biodiversity is important because it prevents some species from becoming extinct by being unable to adapt to changing conditions. Extinction is a natural part of evolution.   Over the history of the planet, the species that exist today have evolved from species that gradually went extinct.  Extinction can have many causes, catastrophic events like the meteor that struck the Earth at the end of the Cretceous Period wiping out the dinosaurs, or simple inability to adapt to new circumstances like a new predator, a changing food supply, or a shifting climate. If rapid climate change continues at the current rate, wildlife may not have the time to adapt which could cause many animals to go extinct without having the chance to adjust.  The reason biodiversity is cherished so dearly is because having genetic and ecological variance in a species and in ecosystems prevents natural occurrences from wiping out whole populations.  Ecological biodiversity helps not only to make species more adaptable but helps balance various food chains within habitats.

Biodiversity is essential for the maintenance of artificial and natural ecosystems on which humans depend, but human activities, which are causing a species extinction rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, threaten to unbalance the ecosystem.

Drivers that reduce biodiversity include habitat loss and degradation, over-exploitation, like over fishing and excessive hunting, the spread of non-native species, and disease.

Human caused climate change has had a significant negative effect on biodiversity. The IPCC has predicted that by 2100, the earth surface will have warmed as much as 6 degrees Celsius. It difficult to predict how global ecosystems will respond to the extreme warming, but the effects may be catastrophic.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, climate change alone is expected to threaten approximately one-quarter or more of all species on land with extinction by the year 2050.

Biodiversity2Nitrogen Fertilization can also have damaging effects on biodiversity. PNAS conducted an experiment to measure the lasting impact of nitrogen enrichment of crops and its effects on biological diversity. They found that while chronic nitrogen enrichment initially increased productivity, it also led to the loss of plant species. Their conclusion states, “Our results support the hypothesis that the long-term impacts of human caused drivers of environmental change on ecosystem functioning can strongly depend on how such drivers gradually decrease biodiversity and restructure communities.”

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, could interfere with natural biodiversity. GMO Compass has expressed concern that GMOs might have a harmful impact on plants and animals exposed to them. If genetically modified plants pass their engineered traits on to wild relatives; those relatives could be changed. Tampering with the natural processes like genetic biodiversity could affect populations negatively.  Cross-species gene modification is a new area of research which may have short term benefits, however without careful study before widespread usage of this technique genetic diversity could be threatened, and there could be unforeseen consequences.

New characteristics created by genetically modifying an organism could offer advantages in agricultural productivity, but it could also create a loss of biodiversity. Reducing the diversity of plants found in agriculture could lead to problems like higher susceptibility to outbreaks of plant diseases and pests.

Biodiversity3Agricultural disease is not to be taken lightly. The Irish Potato Famine of the mid 19th Century is an example of low biodiversity leading to disaster.  Because only one type of potato was planted in Ireland, most the crop was killed off by a disease leaving the island without enough food. It has been estimated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people died, and nearly one million people left the country. Just imagine if such an event happened to wheat, rice, or corn in the US.  Biodiversity within crop populations is the best defense against such a catastrophe.

It is estimated that in the United States biodiversity provides a total of $319 billion dollars in annual benefits and $2,928 billion in annual benefits worldwide according to a study conducted in 1995. After accounting for inflation since 1995 to 2014, the annual value of biodiversity is about $4,538 billion in benefits worldwide.

Investing in clean energy and supporting sustainable industries will help stop the degradation of biodiversity, as climate change is one of the largest threats to biodiversity.  International Biodiversity day is to help raise awareness about issues that impact Biodiversity.  It is essential for agriculture, adaptation, and life as we know it.  Biodiversity provides not a only critical function, but great economic value as well.


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Posted: May 22, 2015