Biodiversity – What is it ?

UN Convention on Biodiversity: “Biological diversity” means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Since these pages are devoted to singing the praise of Biodiversity, it should be clear what we talk about here. Most people will instantly think of biodiversity as all species that exist. Most people will then think of birds, and mammals, and probably also trees, and flowers, and animals like bees, butterflies, fish and corals and the like. Organisms that are (relatively) easy to see or observe.

If so, then it should not be forgotten that creatures like mushrooms, worms, crabs, or for instance mosses and lichens belong to it as well. And not to forget tiny organisms like multicellular microscopic life like Volvox, and mono cellular life, such as diatoms (well, most of them are; some also come together to form colonies). And, although lots of people refer to them as “germs”, bacteria and viruses also belong to it. All these creatures make up the impressive gamut of species that make up biodiversity.

Birds, butterflies, mushrooms, trees, and microscopic life - They are all constituents of biodiversity

But …

The concept of Biodiversity doesn’t stop there. To understand that, it is worthwhile to look at the concept of species. When I studied biology, a sort practical definition that was accepted was that organisms belong to the same species if they can get fertile offspring. In other words, children should be able to procreate. This makes sense of course, since what make creatures what they are is determined by their genetic information. If that cannot be brought forward, then what makes something a species is not maintained. The process of evolution through which species come and go cannot work either. So the famous mule – a cross between a donkey and a horse – is not a valid species, because it is sterile.

However, that same concept of species becomes murky when for instance orchids are studied. Orchids are famous for their capacity to produce hybrids. As the website eMonocot writes on it’s orchid pages:

Many genera show a marked degree of interfertility both between their individual species and with species of other genera. This has given rise to innumerable artificial hybrids, both interspecific and intergeneric, which form the basis of a very important and extensive horticultural industry.

It has been said therefore that orchids, being a relatively new group of flowering plants, are still fully in the phase of generating species. But other groups have problems as well. Recently I came across two gibbon species, for instance, that illustrate that conundrum. One is called Nomascus siki, or Southern White-cheeked Gibbon. The other one isN. leucogenys, or Northern White-cheeked Gibbon. The IUCN Red List site webpage for the Southern White-cheeked Gibbon says:

This taxon is variously considered a subspecies of N. concolor, N. leucogenys and N. gabriellae (M. Richardson pers. comm.). This may not be a genuine species, but rather, a natural hybrid of N. leucogenys and N. gabriellae. According to Delacour (1951) and Groves (1972), this species may possibly interbreed with N. gabriellae in Saravane and Savannakhet, Lao.

Inter-species variation

This consideration brings the idea of sub-species into the discussion. Within a species – regarded as a natural unit that separates one group of organisms from all other organisms – are sub-groups of organisms that share genetic information, are distinctly different from other subgroups, but yet it is possible to have fertile offspring produced by individuals from different subgroups. This is one way in which evolution works. It is also a way in which humanity has produced lots of food crops and livestock. All those different varieties of potatoes, beans, chickens, cows, horses, rice, manioc, tomatoes, bananas, corn or maize, and so on, are fine-tuned to the environment for which they were developed. But all those varieties can in principle interbreed.

The well-known banana comes in many varieties

This discussion isn’t so much about the concept of species, as it is to emphasise the role of genes for biodiversity. It is the package of genes and the variety that exist within individuals of the same species that make up biodiversity. So biodiversity includes species, and varieties, in order to capture the essential quality of the concept Biodiversity.

This brings us back to viruses. The question whether viruses are alive or not is irrelevant. Viruses contain genetic material and they change, evolve, constantly. For that reasons, they belong to biodiversity. Prions are wrongly shaped proteins and are not regarded as living organisms: they do not contain genetic material, and don’t have a cellular structure. They would therefore not be part of biological diversity. (Yet they are infectious! Read more here.)

Still not all …

All creatures live together in systems. Such systems are referred to as ecosystems. When I studied, the idea of ecosystem was a relative idea. A fresh water lake was considered an ecosystem, but the forest that contained such fresh water lake as well. Another school preferred more static definitions. A forest with lakes in it, would be considered a landscape for instance, and the forest as such an ecosystem, as would be the fresh water lake. Whatever conceptual approach is used for the term ecosystem, the basic idea is the same. Organisms do not live in isolation. They always live together in systems. Evolution is the process that describes how species are formed and how they are changed and give birth to other species. This works under pressure of the environment of such species. Pressure comes from non-living elements, such as soil chemistry or physical properties of soil, water availability and so on. It some also from other organisms that live within that system. Birds of prey hunting small birds or insects. Caterpillars eating the leaves of host plants. And so on. Species and varieties develop because of the systems they live in. Ecosystems belong therefore also to the concept of Biodiversity.

Convention on Biodiversity

Most countries have agreed to preserve biological diversity via ratification of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). In this convention are a number objectives and measures to actively work towards sustainable development and preserve this diversity. The text of the convention (Convention on Biological Diversity. IUCN, June 5, 1992.) uses the definition of biological diversity quoted above. On it’s website it says it a bit more elaborate, incorporating the elements discussed above:

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend.

This diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms. So far, about 1.75 million species have been identified, mostly small creatures such as insects. Scientists reckon that there are actually about 13 million species, though estimates range from three to 100 million.

Biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species – for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Chromosomes, genes, and DNA-the building blocks of life-determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species.

Yet another aspect of biodiversity is the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them.

It is the combination of life forms and their interactions with each other and with the rest of the environment that has made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. Biodiversity provides a large number of goods and services that sustain our lives.

Species coming and going – but now they are going too fast ….

And climate change is the dangerous process that we now embark on that will heavily impact on this diversity. The myriad of relations between living organisms and therefore between living organisms and non-living elements like soil are going to be changed in unforeseeable directions and magnitudes. After centuries of work, various examples around the world show that often it is not yet completely understood how ecosystems work precisely. Taking out so many elements in rapid succession out of these systems by altering the physical conditions through climate change is a very dangerous experiment. It will make life for people very difficult for decades, if not centuries to come, by causing huge changes in the conditions that we are to live in.

This Amazing Biodiversity lets us exist – Do we want to lose it to Climate Change ?

The title above is the slogan I had put on the first banner I used for my photo sharing website The World is Beautiful and Fragile. And each photo on that banner had a sentence, in which often the message is that the continued existence of that species can be doubted because of the oncoming effects of climate change. For each species it is a question mark. It is without further study – primary, secondary or tertiary – not always possible to confidently state of a species whether it will adapt to climate change or not. I have since changed the banner, but have kept the introductory text on climate change – and you will see this same elephant looking at us, as if asking: and what about me? Because whether one is careful about predicting the demise of species, or whether one is more outspoken (with or without further arguments), the (upcoming) impacts of climate change are hard to overstate.

We are member of the Web of Life

Whether we like it or not, we are one of the hundreds of thousands of species that inhabit this earth, and we, as a species, rely on the ecological role we play as much as other species. Granted, human populations have over time developed lots of technologies to decrease limiting ecological factors. Food and shelter are obvious examples. From caves to huts to buildings, technology allowed lots of people to escape death from weather events, diseases, or, for instance, predators. The development of agriculture allowed a greater control over the availability of food. Food and shelter then, are just two among many factors that allowed people to live longer and in greater numbers.

All species change their environment to a lesser or greater degree to their benefit. Species that dig holes or building nests are essentially doing the same that people did by building houses: controlling access by predators, harmful temperatures, or e.g. storing food. A number of species of ants predate people in actively controlling temperatures inside their dwellings. As for food, certain species of, again, ants, actively control their food supply, by herding aphids. (See for instance

This mutual beneficial relationship between ants and aphids works by ants eating the honeydew secreted by the aphids, and the aphids being protected from predators by the ants

Yet, no species has moved the limits of ecological factors as much as we did. It may seem to some, therefore, that we have freed ourselves of our ecological role, and that, pried loose from the rest of nature, people can always survive.

Such thinking would be a mistake. Despite technological progress, people are and remain organisms that rely on a myriad of things in our immediate or wider environment. Some clear examples include the food we eat. To some it may appear as if food is not constrained by such factors: people visit supermarkets and buy meat, vegetables, rice, bread and a host of other things. Nevertheless, these are agricultural products, needing soil to grow, and their cultivation is determined by the local climate. Even those limits can be moved. Hydroponics is a system where plants can be grown in a watery environment, not needing soil. But even such systems are not free from diseases, and they still need fertilisers, be that organic or industrially manufactured. And besides, it’s hard to see all wheat, rice, potato and corn fields in the world – major staple crops on which the majority of people rely – replaced by a vast system of hydroponics.

Can we imagine our staples grown worldwide as hydroponics ?

Another example form the micro-organisms in our digestive system, without which we would not be able to digest all the food we eat. Micro-organisms can also make us sick, periodically reminding us of those ties with the rest of nature, as the current ebola crisis grimly shows. And there are a good number of micro-organisms and fungi that allows us food items such as wine, cheese, beer, and spirits. Examples can be found too in recent weather events, where flooding cause damage, death and food shortages, and storms destroy houses and shelters, grim reminders of the discomfort and dangers of living without these.

Climate change

And this brings me then back to climate change. If we are so reliant on other organisms, then we should try our utmost best to keep these other organisms. But despite enormous ongoing conservation efforts, it is increasingly more difficult. Habitats are damaged or destroyed. Invasive species – species that do not belong in a given region, but have been introduced there, and thrive – outcompete native species. Overharvesting threatens the survival of certain species, such as is the case with the bluefin tuna – that has its own commission, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – or whales – which have theirs, the International Whaling Commission, on basis of an international convention, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Nevertheless, as all sorts of projects and programs show, these threats can be countered to a higher or lesser degree.

Climate change, however, has proved sofar to be beyond people’s capacity of arresting its threat by for instance effective behavioural change, or meaningful government policies (i.e. a real global decrease in greenhouse gas emissions). Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising: the World Meteorological Organisation found that in the last decade “the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide”. And the world is steadily growing warmer. The famous pause in temperature rise has found to be – as suspected – an expression of the capacity of world’s oceans to store heat. The oceans have gotten warmer, instead of the atmosphere. Once this capacity has been exhausted, warming of the atmosphere will go up, in an accelerated pace.

And this must be clearly said : unless we find the means to suck up enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, climate change cannot be reversedWe can still only try to minimise the changes.

What then can we expect. Sea level rise, of course. Recently, the thawing of an antarctic ice shelf has been assessed as signifying an unstoppable and irreversible process of melt. Also changes in temperatures: record heats and colds have been measured for a number of years. See for instance this map of NOAA with land and ocean temperatures for August 2014:

Red all over

There is hardly an area that is showing the average temperature for August, and the vast majority of territory shows a higher temperature. NOAA goes on to say that “August marked the 38th consecutive August with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average temperature for August occurred in 1976.” In general the weather has already become, and will be more, unstable with more extremes in heat and cold, drought and excessive rainfall. Just today, an article in The Independent reported on research of Cornell University that concluded that the risks of experiencing megadroughts (droughts that last for 35 years or longer) are now high.

What does this all mean for biodiversity?

The Convention on Biological Diversity says this on its website:

“It is now widely recognized that climate change and biodiversity are interconnected. Biodiversity is affected by climate change, with negative consequences for human well-being, but biodiversity, through the ecosystem services it supports, also makes an important contribution to both climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Consequently, conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity is critical to addressing climate change.”

Deepening all that is something for a next post. For now I just wonder which species will have enough adaptability to maintain ecosystem functions, considering that where species have evolved in the context of slower processes than the current climate change one, which operates on a timescale of significant environmental changes in decades rather than in millennia. And where attention goes, naturally, to easily to see or notice species or groups (mammals, fish, shellfish, agricultural crops), lots of other species or groups don’t get the attention they deserve: fungi, butterflies, bees, bacteria.

Climate change action

The IPCC, Cornell University of the megadrought report, and a host of other authors and institutions predict enormous problems for the coming decades. Agriculture will be severely affected. The food security as we have known it in the developed world since after World War II will disappear. And we haven’t even talked yet about the seas and oceans growing more acid, effecting fish and shellfish populations. Seen from these apocalyptic perspectives, all the ongoing things like the genteel Scottish independence, brutally establishing an islamic caliphate, or e.g. surreptitiously bringing back the Soviet Union, seem like futile struggles, whose importance and realisation will pale once climate change effects begin to bite more intense.

Clearly, it seems, there is reason for climate change action. The UN is trying to lay the grounds for a meaningful global agreement in 2015 as of 23 september. Not everyone is convinced that politicians will do enough. Avaaz, an activist online-petition network, organises an online petition to submit to the UN – which you can sign here – and seeks to galvanise and coordinate protest-events world-wide so you can find one near you to join it.