38.1 The Biodiversity Crisis
Biodiversity exists at multiple levels of organization and is measured in different ways depending on the goals of those taking the measurements. These measurements include numbers of species, genetic diversity, chemical diversity, and ecosystem diversity. The number of described species is estimated to be 1.5 million with about 17,000 new species being described each year. Estimates for the total number of species on Earth vary but are on the order of 10 million. Biodiversity is negatively correlated with latitude for most taxa, meaning that biodiversity is higher in the tropics. The mechanism for this pattern is not known with certainty, but several plausible hypotheses have been advanced.
Five mass extinctions with losses of more than 50 percent of extant species are observable in the fossil record. Biodiversity recovery times after mass extinctions vary, but have been up to 30 million years. Recent extinctions are recorded in written history and are the basis for one method of estimating contemporary extinction rates. The other method uses measures of habitat loss and species-area relationships. Estimates of contemporary extinction rates vary, but some rates are as high as 500 times the background rate, as determined from the fossil record, and are predicted to rise.
38.2 The Importance of Biodiversity to Human Life
Humans use many compounds that were first discovered or derived from living organisms as medicines: secondary plant compounds, animal toxins, and antibiotics produced by bacteria and fungi. More medicines are expected to be discovered in nature. Loss of biodiversity will impact the number of pharmaceuticals available to humans.
Crop diversity is a requirement for food security, and it is being lost. The loss of wild relatives to crops also threatens breeders’ abilities to create new varieties. Ecosystems provide ecosystem services that support human agriculture: pollination, nutrient cycling, pest control, and soil development and maintenance. Loss of biodiversity threatens these ecosystem services and risks making food production more expensive or impossible. Wild food sources are mainly aquatic, but few are being managed for sustainability. Fisheries’ ability to provide protein to human populations is threatened when extinction occurs.
Biodiversity may provide important psychological benefits to humans. Additionally, there are moral arguments for the maintenance of biodiversity.
38.3 Threats to Biodiversity
The core threats to biodiversity are human population growth and unsustainable resource use. To date, the most significant causes of extinctions are habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and overharvesting. Climate change is predicted to be a significant cause of extinctions in the coming century. Habitat loss occurs through deforestation, damming of rivers, and other activities. Overharvesting is a threat particularly to aquatic species, while the taking of bush meat in the humid tropics threatens many species in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Exotic species have been the cause of a number of extinctions and are especially damaging to islands and lakes. Exotic species’ introductions are increasing because of the increased mobility of human populations and growing global trade and transportation. Climate change is forcing range changes that may lead to extinction. It is also affecting adaptations to the timing of resource availability that negatively affects species in seasonal environments. The impacts of climate change are greatest in the arctic. Global warming will also raise sea levels, eliminating some islands and reducing the area of all others.
38.4 Preserving Biodiversity
New technological methods such as DNA barcoding and information processing and accessibility are facilitating the cataloging of the planet’s biodiversity. There is also a legislative framework for biodiversity protection. International treaties such as CITES regulate the transportation of endangered species across international borders. Legislation within individual countries protecting species and agreements on global warming have had limited success; there is at present no international agreement on targets for greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act protects listed species but is hampered by procedural difficulties and a focus on individual species. The Migratory Bird Act is an agreement between Canada and the United States to protect migratory birds. The non-profit sector is also very active in conservation efforts in a variety of ways.
Conservation preserves are a major tool in biodiversity protection. Presently, 11 percent of Earth’s land surface is protected in some way. The science of island biogeography has informed the optimal design of preserves; however, preserves have limitations imposed by political and economic forces. In addition, climate change will limit the effectiveness of preserves in the future. A downside of preserves is that they may lessen the pressure on human societies to function more sustainably outside the preserves.
Habitat restoration has the potential to restore ecosystems to previous biodiversity levels before species become extinct. Examples of restoration include reintroduction of keystone species and removal of dams on rivers. Zoos have attempted to take a more active role in conservation and can have a limited role in captive breeding programs. Zoos also may have a useful role in education.