Andreas Späth

Biodiversity matters

2015-04-28 14:35

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Eco-cynics like to ridicule the poster children which the corporate conservation industry has chosen to represent the plight of the natural world – the iconic panda, the rhino, the leopard toad, the spotted owl, the polar bear. Considering the big picture, they ask, does it really matter if we lose a couple of cuddly and photogenic animal species that have been carefully marketed to tug at the heartstrings of the world’s tree-hugging middle classes?

They’re missing the point, of course, although the advertising geniuses who’ve singled out a few loveable creatures as representatives of an immensely diverse whole (presumably because ordinary humans can’t cope with nature’s multitudinous complexities) should take some of the blame. The real question is this: why should we care about biodiversity and the long-term survival of all manner of plant and animal species?

In recent months, a number interesting studies on this issue have been published. Among other things, scientists increasingly understand the impact human activities are having on global biodiversity.

One recent study that investigated genetic variations among about 40 bird species during the last two million years or so confirmed that climatic changes have had a major effect on the abundance and distribution of most of the species, and warned that human-caused climate change is likely to drive some (particularly those already under stress) towards extinction.

In the Amazon, researchers have found that we’re close to or perhaps even past, a threshold of deforestation beyond which extinction rates will speed up. Until now, they explain, for every 10% of forest loss, one or two major mammal or bird species has disappeared forever. Once forest cover drops to 43% and below, this rate accelerates to between two and eight major species lost per 10% of forest destruction. They predict that without urgent intervention 31 to 44% of species will be gone by 2030.

The nuclear disaster at Fukushima has been shown to have resulted in dramatic declines in the populations of several local bird varieties, climate change is affecting the distribution of birds and reptiles in the USA, and together with fishing practices, it’s impacting on fish populations.

So it’s not just the survival of rhinos and polar bears we’re endangering. We’re a threat to a growing multitude of different species across the board. “So what?” you might say. “As long as we’re still here, everything’s hunky-dory”.

And that’s where you’d be fatally mistaken. Biodiversity happens to be critical to the stability and productivity of entire ecosystems; ecosystems that provide us with a wide range of goods and services without which we simply could not survive, from food, fuel, medicines and clean water to carbon storage and protection against storm surges and floods.

While certain particular species may be especially important to the viability of some ecosystems, in general, the more biodiverse and the more intact an ecosystem, the more life-giving goods and services it provides.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that a drop in plant diversity makes the surviving plant species in an ecosystem less productive, suggesting that in the case of Alaskan boreal forests, “every 1% reduction in overall plant diversity could render an average of 0.23% decline in individual tree productivity”.

Similarly, a loss of plant species in grasslands has been shown to lead to long-term drops in the production of biomass, while diminishing biodiversity even in the out-of-sight world of deep-sea ecosystems may have significant detrimental impacts on entire oceans.

So it’s not just about saving the elephant and the cuddly panda. It’s about preserving biodiversity in general, and stemming the sixth worldwide mass extinction we’re currently in the process of setting off. Not only because it’s our ethical and moral responsibility not to exterminate our planetary co-inhabitants (cute or ugly), but because we need all of them to maintain stable ecosystems which in turn are critical to our own survival. Anything else would be suicidal.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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