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Biodiversity - What it is and why we need it

Human beings depend on biologically diverse and healthy ecosystems for their survival. But what is biodiversity? The term biodiversity is a contraction of the two words “biological diversity” and refers to the variety of life on earth. The word “bio” is Greek and means “life”. “Diversity” means differing from one another. Diversity is just another word for “variety”. Biodiversity encompasses the three following components: diversity of species, genetic diversity and ecosystems.

Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park, California.--Source: Joshua Tree National Park – Flickr

The diversityof species on earth ranges from animals, plants and fungi to micro-organisms. It is estimated that 8,7 million species live on earth, excluding bacteria. As less than 2 million species are currently catalogued, the majority of living things on earth still remains undiscovered. On average, scien-tists describe 15,000 new species every year.
Genetic diversity means the total number of genetic characteristics occurring within the gene pool of a species. For example, genetic diversity is reflected in the high variety of human beings’ hair or eye colour or other facial and body features.
The more genetically diverse a population of a species is, the greater is the probability that its individuals are able to adapt to changing environmental conditions such as droughts and sudden food scarcity. This safeguards the survival of that particular species as a whole.
The third component of biodiversity is the wide range of ecosystems. When you hear people talking about “the environment” or “nature” they actually refer to ecosystems. “Eco” derives from the Greek word for “house” or “home”. Imagine ecosystems as the house where biodiversity lives in. Ecosystems consist of living organisms such as animals, plants, fungi and very small forms of life such as bacteria. The living organisms interact with each other and with the non-organic components.
The non-organic components are chemical and physical parts of the environment which affect living organisms. Climate factors such as precipitation, temperature, humidity, wind and radiation are non-living factors as well, and so are sunlight, soil, hill slope, nutrients as well as carbon dioxide and oxygen concentration.
Ecosystems can either be aquatic or terrestrial. Every sub-ecosystem falls under one of these two categories. The major terrestrial ecosystem categories are forest, desert, grassland and mountain ecosystems. In regards to aquatic ecosystems a distinction is made between freshwater and marine ecosystems.
The differences in temperatures, altitude and amounts of precipitation as well as other factors have resulted in the formation of a huge variety of ecosystems. Due to the diversity of living conditions each ecosystem is home to different animals and plants. For instance, some animals cope very well with heat and others are well-adjusted to icy temperatures. Some plants depend on daily rainfall, others survive droughts.
Ecosystems with the highest number of different plant and animal species are located in the tropics. Tropical forests and coral reefs show an abundance in plant and animal species. Biodiversity in tropical forests is mainly due to the diversity of insects, birds and plants. The world’s largest rainforest in the Amazon region spans across eight countries in South America.
Scientists estimate that it is home to 2.5 million species of insects – the majority of which has not been described yet.
Coral reefs are the marine equivalent of tropical rainforests. Their inhabitants are different species of fish, corals, shellfishes, starfishes as well as mussels and squids. At almost the size of Great Britain, the Great Barrier Reef offshore Australia is the biggest coral reef on earth.
In contrast, hot and cold deserts are ecosystems with much less species. The low precipitation and extreme temperatures hamper the development of biological diversity. All species found in deserts are highly specialised to their harsh environment. Cacti, desert grasses and different kinds of shrubs cope very well with high temperatures and very small amounts of water. Mammals living in hot deserts such as rabbits, rodents and coyotes have large ears which help them to evaporate off heat. Camels are the only large mammals which are able to survive in these environments.
In summary, biodiversity is a very complex three-part concept consisting of diversity in species, genes and ecosystems. Biodiversity is all about interactions of species and their interdependencies. The greater the biological diversity and the more intertwined the species within an ecosystem are, the more resilient it is. Biodiverse ecosystems are crucial for human survival and welfare. Protecting biodiversity means maintaining a safety net for the human species. In view of worldwide climate change and population growth this is more important than ever.
This article has been contributed by ProCEEd (Promotion of Climate-related Environmental Education), a project supported by the Federal Republic of Germany and implemented by the Deutsche GesellschaftfürInternationaleZusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

(Latest Update
May 11,2017 )

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