Who Cares Anyway?
The Importance of Biodiversity
Kathleen Mary Andersen
Science Thesis - June, 2011
Why should we worry about biodiversity: the diversity of life? Why does it matter? Historical records have shown species have always gone extinct over millions of years. When the human population of the world suffers from starvation and poverty, why do we want to spend time and money on protecting the animal and plant species on this planet? What about us, the human species, do we have priority? We share this planet with over 1.7 million known species and possibly more. If we don’t understand them how do we know how our lives as human not only impact us but how we might impact them nor how important their survival means to the future survival of us as a species. Does it matter that there aren’t so many species? What is “biodiversity”? Biodiversity is a variability and genetic diversity within a species population and the variety of ecosystems over a geographical area. We, as humans, depend on a sustainable environment that is healthy but we continue to damage our environment. Issues have included nature and animal conservation, the impact of our increasing population, climate change, development and genetically altered food.
- Biodiversity can be classified in three groups:
- Genetic diversity - the genetic variability within a species. Species diversity - the variety of species within a community
- Ecosystem diversity - species in an area into distinctive plant and animal communities
Biodirsity is the part of nature which includes the difference in genes among the individuals of a species, the variety and richness of all the plant and animal species at different scales in space, locally in a region, in the country and the world and various types of ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic within a defined area. Biodiversity deals with the degree of nature’s variety in the biosphere. Unlike the 5 mass extinction events that have occurred in our geological history, the current extinction appears to be almost entirely responsible by a single species: humans. We do not actually know how many species actually exist on this planet, but we have discovered that we are losing species between 1,000 and 10,000 higher than the natural extinction rate. The IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature), the world’s oldest and largest conservation agency calculates that 0.01 to 0.1% of species will become extinct each year. Mass extinctions have contributed to an acceleration of evolution of life here on earth. The passing of dominance of one species passes to another. But it is rarely because the new dominant group is "superior" to the old. Gymnosperms, the plant group that including conifers are the most threatened plants on Earth. Over all, the report reveals that plants are more threatened than birds, and just as vulnerable as the planet's mammals. We are currently undergoing extinctions at an alarming rate.
Washington’s diverse topography, exposure to Pacific Ocean currents and weather patterns, and location on the migratory path of many wildlife species make it one of the most biologically diverse states in the nation, encompassing seacoast, shrub-steppe, native prairie, parts of four major forested mountain ranges, and Puget Sound. In fact, Washington has two ecosystems that cannot be found anywhere else in the world: the Olympic rainforest and the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.
These ecosystems and the biological diversity they support range across a landscape that extends from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Puget Sound in the west to the Columbia Plateau and Northern Rocky Mountains in the east. Consequently, Washington is home to a remarkable variety of fish and wildlife species--a natural heritage important to the long-term health and economic security of every resident of the state. However, changes to the landscape and native habitat, primarily as a result of human activity, have put many of these species at risk.
There is a great need to be proactive, to protect what we already have, and to keep common species common before they become endangered or at risk. Washington is one of the most biologically diverse states in the nation, but the health of its native plant communities and wildlife is declining due to factors, including changes in land use, invasive species, pollution and climate change. Biological diversity provides Washington with economic, health and cultural benefits. These include the economic returns of agriculture, forestry and fishing, which generate roughly $3.5 billion in income in Washington annually. Healthy ecosystems provide services, such as the flood protection, valued at up to $51,000 per acre. Is Washington State living up to its promise to protect eco-systems and biodiversity? This report discusses the history, background and current state of biodiversity and their eco-systems.
The Importance of Biodiversity
Although we may think that ecology and the concern for the biodiversity of species on our planet is new, it actually dates back to perhaps the first ecologist, Aristotle in 244 B.C. In his Politics, Book 1, Chapter 8, he wrote, “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”. He continued that the value of nonhuman things in nature is merely instrumental. His young student, Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) wrote “Enquiry into Plants” and “On the Causes of Plants” which changed our biological world of identifying and cataloguing all the species that live on earth. Everything alive on this planet is categorized by Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. However, officially, Alexander von Humboldt is often referred to the father of ecology. He was the first to take on the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment.
Theophrastus exposed the existing relationships between observed plant species and climate and described vegetation zones using longitude and latitude, a discipline now known as geobotany, the geographic distribution of plant species. Many would follow such as Wallace, Mobius and Darwin whose extensive research made us aware of the relationship between species and their environment. Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth and the essential interdependence of all living things. Scientists have identified more than 2 million species. Tens of millions remain unknown. Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play. A larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops; greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms; and healthy ecosystems can better withstand and recover from a variety of disasters.
Arthur Tansley the 19th century, botanical geography and zoogeography combined to form the basis of biodeography science, which deals with habitats of species and seeks to explain the reasons for the presence of certain species in a given location. It was in 1935 that Tansley coined the term “ecosystem”, the interactive system established between the biocoenosis (the group of living creatures), and their biotope, the environment in which they live. Ecology thus became the science of ecosystems. The early ecologist noted and warned about the effects of deforestation, the industrial revolution and what could happen, as well as what the effect may be from homesteading pioneers forging out the west. It became the science of concerns about the impact of human activity on the environment.
The term ecology has been in use since the end of the 19th century. Anyone who studies U.S. history willremember the conditions that lead to the “dirty thirties” or the dust bowl era. Over working of the soil added to drought conditions producing a major disaster in this country. The effects amounted to over 3 million people leaving middle America and over 150,000 square miles of crops were destroyed. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies conducted a simulation of the conditions surrounding the 1930’s dust bowl. Over 70 years later, there has been no conclusive evidence of what really happened however the Goddard Institute stated in their report “First changes in tropical sea surface temperatures created a drought. Poor land use practices then led to exposure of bare soil followed by wind erosion and dust storms. The dust storms interacted with radiation to make the drought worse and move it northward increasing the potential for further wind erosion.”
The most influential person in recent times was Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) an American marine biologist and conservationist whose writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Carson began her career as a biologist in the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries, but became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us and her follow up books brought her financial security. In the late 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation and the environmental problems caused by synthetic pesticides. Silent Spring (1962) was the result that brought environmental attention and concerns to an unprecedented portion of the American public. Silent Spring, while met with fierce denial from chemical companies, spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy—leading to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides—and the environmental movement the book inspired led to the creation of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency.
Our World, Our Concern
There are a large variety of different ecosystems on earth, which have their own complement of distinctive inter linked species based on the differences in the habitat. Ecosystem diversity can be described for a specific geographical region, or a political entity such as a country, a State or just a neighborhood. Distinctive ecosystems include landscapes such as forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, as well as aquatic ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, and the sea.
Each region also has man-modified areas such as farmland or grazing pastures. An ecosystem is referred to as ‘natural’ when it is relatively undisturbed by human activities or ‘modified’ when it is changed to other types of uses, such as farmland or urban areas. Ecosystems are most natural in wilderness areas. If natural ecosystems are overused or misused their productivity eventually decreases and they are then said to be degraded. India, for example, is exceptionally rich in ecosystem diversity. tury. “Biodiversity makes important contributions to human well-being, but many of the actions needed to promote economic development and reduce hunger and poverty are likely to reduce biodiversity.”
The balance of nature is a theory that says that ecological systems are usually in a stable equilibrium. This fine balance can be affected by the smallest change in some parameters such as population. It may apply where populations depend on each other, for example in predator/prey systems, or relationships between herbivores and their food source. It is also sometimes applies to the relationship between the Earth's ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world's weather.
The Gaia hypothesis is a balance of nature-based theory that suggests that the Earth and its ecology may act as co-ordinated systems in order to maintain the balance of nature. Whether nature is can ever be permanently in balance has been largely discredited. In the marine world, widespread damage to diverse species of corals has been documented around the world. The phenomenon is known as coral "bleaching," involves the corals expelling their symbiotic algae often resulting in death of the coral. Coral bleaching is thought to possibly related to climate warming, although it can be caused by both unusually high or low water temperatures, changes in salinity, and other environmental stresses.
Another unexplained case of an ecological disease appears to be afflicting species of amphibians in many parts of the world. Chytridiomycosis is an infectious fungus disease. Chytrid as it is also known has been linked to dramatic population declines or even extinctions of amphibian species in western North America, Central America, South America, Eastern Australia, and the Caribbean. There are sporadic deaths in some amphibian populations and 100% mortality in others. There is no effective measure for control of the disease in wild populations. The disease is contributing to a global decline in the amphibian populations has affected 30% of the amphibian species of the world. The benefits of frogs, for example, is that they filter the water they live in while providing bug control within their environment.
The American farmers love their chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and apply them liberally to their crops. Unfortunately, these chemicals – along with nitrogen-rich livestock waste – seeps from farmlands along the Mississippi River into the water and eventually, down into the Gulf of Mexico, where they have led to an oxygen-starved “dead zone” the size of New Jersey. Ocean dead zones cannot support sea life. Nitrogen in the chemicals and animal waste spur the growth of algae, which is eaten by zooplankton. Those microscopic creatures then excrete pellets that sink to the bottom of the ocean and decay, a process that depletes the water of oxygen. Researchers set out last July to study the dead zone, taking water samples and measuring the total affected area. Some water samples showed no oxygen at all, and smelled of hydrogen sulfide, a rotten egg smell that indicates organic sediments on the sea floor.
The dead zone has grown steadily over the past few decades. Though it tends to disappear in October, once cold weather sets in, there’s a “legacy” left behind due to the fact that not all organic matter on the bottom decays in any given year. This means that even if the same amount of nitrogen is released into the Gulf year after year, the dead zone will get larger. A recent study identified many of the species of the nitrogen runoff along the Mississippi River, and the government plans to help states focus their pollution-reduction efforts to prevent some of the runoff from ending up in the river. This ecology disaster became even more critical when the recent BP oil spill incident added to the already suffering ecological area.
On March 06, 2008, Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, signed an executive order to protect the state’s threat to species and critical ecosystems that have resulted in endangered species. Her council produced goals in the “Biodiversity Conservation Strategic Comprehensive Guide” and put programs in place to protect conservation areas. The strategy of this program was initiated at a meeting of legislative bodies in December of 2007. The minutes of this meeting included items such as the importance of biodiversity at the highest levels of our quality of life and economy, the importance of population growth, reinforcement of biodiversity goals, strategy and the creation of maps to carry the message to the people. In April of 2011, the Washington State Biodiversity Project which governs the State of Washington’s effort in biodiversity has stated on their website
“The Washington Biodiversity Council reached its sunset date on June 30, 2011 and will no longer meet.”
In April, 2010, legislature passes a budget that would provide funding for the Council’s fiscal year. However in May of 2010, Governor Gregoire vetoed the provision and made a statement “while I strongly support of the work of the Biodiversity Council, I am asking the Natural Resource Cabinet to absorb the Council’s oversight role”. This has meant that the projects and work involved over the past two years will be either dropped or continued until June 30, 2011. After this month, the website and most projects will be dismantled.
An interview with Jodie Saltz, the stewardship program director of the Washington Biodiversity Project which is the effort put forth by the Washington Biodiversity Council explains “projects that were on the table or future projects will now be either dropped or absorbed by other non-profit foundations such as Cascade Land Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, Puget Sound Near Shore Organization and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources”. LandScope, America, (www.landscope.org) is a new collaborative effort by Natureserv and National Geographic Society to cover biodiversity and conservation efforts across the country. They will be reporting and taking information about the State of Washington’s efforts to carry on the biodiversity projects and is a grass roots, interactive reporting service and mapping agency (GIS) that will allow users to be a part of biodiversity efforts not just in Washington state but across the country.
Eco-system protection still look promising for King County. Jennifer Vanderhoff, Senior Ecology for the county explained “Reports of King County Biodiversity is measured by species, habitat and eco-regions. Biodiversity can be vague in genetics due to a lack of information gathering.” Challenges that arise in Washington State has been private property changes, large and long established ownership in a checkerboard pattern in forest protection areas, expanding population growth along the urban boundaries, climate change pressure on certain species ranges. Climate, whether identified as climate change by human or natural causes, does affect the future of animal species. In ecology, a cline represents a term used to identify ecotypes of habitat that contribute to the genetics and survival of a species.
Isolated areas for migration can contribute to inbreeding of the herd or group which can affect not only immune system defenses but the health of the group. Decreasing glaciers for example play a role in expanded migration and a new gene pool for animals such as mountain goats, bear, elk, wolves as well as many others. Other privately funded organizations are taking up the slack of government funding cutbacks is the Seattle Environmental Science Center. Founded in 2000, offers environmental education programs at our local beaches, streams, forests, and classrooms in South King County. Miriam Castor, Director of ESC said that the programs promote environmental stewardship to thousands of people through collaborations with a growing number of school districts and community-based organizations as well as speaking engagements, festivals and workshops. During the past ten years, the center feels it is important to promote foster environmental stewardship and conservation early, and their focus is grades K – high school. During the inquiry-based field portion of the program, students learn to analyze what they are seeing, develop a deeper understanding of ecological systems, see how environmental quality is impacted by human decisions, and reach informed conclusions about how to make responsible choices as citizens.
Does biodiversity matter?
Does eradication of one small organism matter? An example that many of us are familiar with is the case of the mosquito. Out of the 3,500 named species of mosquitoes, only a couple hundred bother to bite humans. They have been on earth more than 100 million years and they can be found all over the planet. Some feel, an ecological scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as this niche would be replaced by another organism.
A Nature Magazine, July 2010 issue, a number of entomologists explained the ecological importance of the tiny mosquito. Prime areas affected would be the tundra where the caribou herd select paths that are facing the winds to escape the swarm. A small change in path could have a major consequence in the Arctic valley where the herd migrates, trample the ground, transport nutrients, feeding wolves and generally altering the ecology. Fish, spiders, many species of insects, members of the amphibian family rely on eating mosquitos. Since it is the male mosquito who is the pollinator, many plants would be affected.
Biogeography: “a science that deals with the geographical distribution of animals and plants” (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary) is a growing field that aims to reveal where organisms live, at what abundance, and why they are (or are not) found in a certain geographical area. Biogeography, with the assistance of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) help in not only the mapping of ecology zones, but the biodiversity of the community within each zone as well as serve as a model to predict future trends in the organisms that reside there. Scientist can better understand a species adaptability when isolated from the mainstream, such as island ecology.
Fragmentation of the landscape due to farming and development impacts potential gene flow and long term-persistence of a species population. Logging may temporarily increase subsidies of nutrients to adjacent streams while invasive species introduction and carried by either human or mechanical means prevent native species of not just plants but fish to establish and exist within their protected area.
Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) an American author, scientist, forester, ecologist and environmentalist was influential in the development of today’s environmental ethics and the movement for wilderness conservation. His belief in nature and wildlife preservation major impact on the environmental movement. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology. In his book “A Sand County Almanac”, he wrote, "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land." "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “What is Biodiversity and why it is important.” April, 2011. <http://www.ciel.org/Biodiversity/WhatIsBiodiversity.html>
King County Washington. “Animals, Plants and Habitat, Biodiversity in King County, Washington”. April, 11. <http://www.kingcounty.gov/environment/animalsandplants/biodiversity. >
Withgott, Jay H.; Brennan, Scott R. “Foundations of Environmental Science”. Environment: The Science Behind the Stories. 4th Ed. 2011 Page 18, Table 1.1
Millenium Ecosystem Assessment Report. “Ecosystems and Human Well–being: Biodiversity Synthesis.” May 02, 2011. Page 77. http://www.maweb.org/documents/document.354.aspx.pdf
Richard T. Wright. “Wild Species and Biodiversity”. Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future. (11th Edition). Pages 261 – 283
Janet Fang. “Ecology: A World Without Mosquitos”. Nature Magazine. July, 2010. 432-434 (2010) | doi:10.1038/466432a
Aldo Leopold,.“A Sand County Almanac”. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1949.