This month’s big word is not that obscure or difficult to pronounce but the concept behind it can be a bit large to grasp. Biodiversity is a word and idea that tries to capture the complex relationships among different forms of life. It came into widespread use beginning in the 1980’s in scientific and political circles as an organizing theme in discussions of conservation. The rise of the word coincided with a change of focus for environmental groups from the extinction of individual species towards the “health” of ecosystems.
Preserving biodiversity around the world is now a primary goal of private and governmental groups that promote conservation. Implied in this goal, is that high levels of biodiversity are beneficial because they reflect healthy ecosystems with low species extinction rates. Supporters of the principles of biodiversity point out that a rich diversity of natural systems provides economic, social, and health benefits to humans while preserving plants and animals.
Scientists and environmental groups usually focus on biodiversity at three different levels:
- diversity within a species, including genetic diversity
- diversity among species, most simply measured by counting the number of species in an area
- ecosystem diversity, a broad view of the number of ecosystems in an area
The first of these three levels has important implications for the survival of threatened and endangered species. When the number of individuals in species declines the genetic diversity of the population begins to decrease. Low genetic diversity can be a burden on a species even if the numbers of individuals begins to increase again. For example, two of the three red wolves that were housed at the museum until recently had health issues that were related to inherited genetic conditions. One of them was bad enough that he had to be euthanized and neither of them would have likely survived in the wild. You can read more about the plight of the red wolf in Keeper Marilyn’s blog posts.
The second view of biodiversity, that of species diversity is more familiar to many people. It includes well-known concerns about the number of threatened and endangered species around the world as well as newer concepts like Biodiversity hotspots. The lemurs that live at the museum (on loan from the Duke University Lemur Center) are native to the island nation of Madagascar, one of several regions identified as having especially high biodiversity.
For some, preserving high levels of biodiversity in the natural world is a moral or religous imperative. Others point out that biodiversity has clear economic benefits for humans in the realms of agriculture, science and medicine, industrial products, and tourism. Hopefully, humans can work together despite our different viewpoints to preserve and understand the diversity of the world around us while enjoying the many rewards it has to offer.