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What is Biodiversity?


Naomi Hoffman, Botanist, Honolulu Botanical Gardens

Naomi Hoffman, Botanist,
Honolulu Botanical Gardens


Biodiversity (short for biological diversity) is a term used to describe the variety of life on Earth. From spectacular orchids to slimy slugs, majestic tigers to tiny eyelash mites, dazzling corals to soaring eagles, the diversity of life on this planet is truly amazing. No one even knows how many millions of species exist! So far, scientists have classified about 1.4 million species, including about 250,000 species of higher plants, 19,000 different species of fish, 10,000 species of reptiles and amphibians, 4,000 species of mammals, 9,000 species of birds, 47,000 species of fungi, and more than 750,000 insect species. The rest include mollusks, corals, worms, spiders, algae, microorganisms, and their relatives.

Despite these huge numbers, there may be millions of species that remain unknown. In fact, estimates of the total number of species on Earth range anywhere from 10 million to 100 million. Many of these species probably live in places that scientists haven’t studied yet, such as rain forest soils and tree canopies or the deep ocean floor.

Although this species diversity is impressive, biodiversity means more than just the variety of organisms. On a much larger scale, biodiversity also includes the many different types of ecosystems that form the varied landscapes of our planet. Ecosystems such as tropical rain forests and coral reefs are teeming with biodiversity. In fact, half the known species on Earth live in tropical rain forests. But it takes many diverse ecosystems throughout the world to maintain the web of life. Deserts, temperate forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems are all essential for life on Earth. These systems help purify our water, clean the air we breathe, generate oxygen, recycle nutrients, and even regulate the climate.

On a much smaller scale, biodiversity also includes the variation within species, which is measured at the level of populations or even genes. Each organism’s genes give it a unique “code of life,” and the variation in this code is what allows species to adapt to their environments over time. Many wild plants have evolved resistance to certain types of insects, fungi, or other pests. Researchers have found ways to use the genes that code for pest resistance in wild species to increase the yields of food crops.

Unfortunately, many species, both known and unknown to science, are now being lost forever. Even the most conservative estimates put this loss at three species per day, a rate that far exceeds the normal “background” rate of extinction of one species per year. And as the human population doubles over the next 50 years, we are going to be placing even greater pressures on our environment. Most of the reasons for species loss, such as habitat destruction, pollution, and overconsumption of energy and natural resources, are caused by only one species - humans. And only we can reverse the trend of environmental destruction that we have created.

This is why concerned scientists, religious and political leaders, teachers, farmers, journalists, students, and many others are getting involved to spread awareness about biodiversity issues and to find solutions that will protect biodiversity for future generations. From creating a wildlife habitat site on your school grounds to generating community interest in local biodiversity issues, countless possibilities for action and change do exist. Some of the most creative solutions may come from students!


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