An iridescent school of fish gliding through a coral reef; a flock of birds navigating by the moonlight’s gleam; a horde of monkeys chattering from the safety of treetops; tiny yellow flowers beckoning to passing insects. These are just a few of nature’s glories the term “biodiversity” tries to encompass with one word.
A quick definition of biodiversity would be diversity among animals and plants in a given environment, but what does that mean? Life is pretty complex to be described with one mere word.
Biodiversity is a relatively new term that has come into existence when the public’s concerns about the environment are at their highest. And so, biodiversity has many definitions. It also has many words associated with it that help us understand biodiversity’s full spectrum.
Biologists think of biodiversity as dealing with the variety of life in all of its forms and levels of organization. Everything from complex humans, to the bacteria living in our mouths, to the very genes that make us up. Because of the enormous complexity that this entails, biologists define biodiversity in three different ways: genetic, species, and ecosystems.
Although the category is named for genetics, biologists do not value the actual gene. It is the diversity that they bestow upon a species the biologists prize. It is these different genes that give us the many breeds of dogs for instance, and this genetic diversity allows one dog to excel at herding livestock and another at guarding its home. Just think if there were only one breed of dog! As a rule of thumb, the larger the gene pool is, the better the biodiversity is because it allows a species to change and adapt.
Biodiversity is also explained by the number of different species in an environment. Many species are tightly connected to one another: what happens to one will affect the other, and sometimes in ways we don’t fully understand.
For instance, there is an endangered bird called the Red Knot that makes a long migration north to feed on the eggs laid by the Horseshoe Crab. One of the reasons experts believe the Red Knot is declining is because the Horseshoe Crab is also declining. One thriving species became endangered because another had.
The third way biologists define biodiversity, is by ecosystems. An ecosystem is a group of organisms and the physical environment they interact with. A lake or a forest would be examples of an ecosystem. Ecosystems are essential because they protect biodiversity at all other levels.
An ecosystem with a lot of biodiversity will be much healthier than a monoculture because it will be less susceptible to diseases and pests. As long as an ecosystem is healthy and stable, biodiversity on the species and genetic levels will flourish. And a variety of ecosystems is what keeps our planet functioning correctly. If we should lose one, it could tip the balance of nature in a harmful way.
Biodiversity is also be defined by the loss of life’s variety. The disappearance of genetics, species, or ecosystems would be detrimental to the world in which we live. Extinction takes away a species and the genetics of that species, which in turn, takes away from the ecosystem.
By combining the three previous definitions, it is clear that our world depends on biodiversity the many forms that life takes. To fully comprehend biodiversity, extinction must be understood as well.
Because extinction is a large part of the definition, naturally, conservation is as well. Conservation is continually mentioned with biodiversity because people believe that biodiversity must be maintained in order to have a healthy environment. So to completely understand biodiversity, one must understand the importance of conserving it.
However, some believe that biodiversity is too vague for the minute details carried along with its topic. After all, biodiversity seems to take the intrinsic value out of nature and compact it into a science term for students to memorize.
On top of that, it is often hard to define terms within the definitions like species and ecosystem. It is often hard to tell where one ends and another begins. Upon first reading, biodiversity doesn’t explain much, but with further delving, biodiversity begins to capture the interwoven beauty of our world and our understanding of it.
Biodiversity begins at the genetic level. Genes shape an individual, many individuals shape a population, many populations shape a species, many species shape an ecosystem, and many ecosystems create our wonderfully diverse world. Biodiversity is threatened by extinction and maintained through conservation.
Though it may be one word, its definitions tell us of butterflies drifting on a summer breeze; a baby caribou walking an hour after coming into the world; a toad serenading its mate on the bank of a sleepy pond; and two eagles dancing and tumbling through midair as they hunt.