Introduction to Biodiversity
describes a community’s biological complexity: it is measured by the number of different species (species richness) in a particular area and their relative abundance (species evenness). The area in question could be a habitat, a biome, or the entire biosphere.
Despite considerable effort, knowledge of the species that inhabit the planet is limited. A recent estimate suggests that the species for which science has names, about 1.5 million species, account for less than 20% of the total number of eukaryote species present on the planet (8.7 million species, by one estimate). Estimates of numbers of prokaryotic species are largely guesses, but biologists agree that science has only begun to catalog their diversity. Even with what is known, there is no central repository of names or samples of the described species; therefore, there is no way to be sure that the 1.5 million descriptions is an accurate number. It is a best guess based on the opinions of experts in different taxonomic groups. Estimates suggest that at the current rate of species description, which according to the State of Observed Species Report is 17,000 to 20,000 new species per year, it will take close to 500 years to finish describing life on this planet.
One of the oldest observed patterns in ecology is that species biodiversity in almost every taxonomic group increases as latitude declines. In other words, biodiversity increases closer to the equator (Fig 9.1). There are a number of hypotheses to explain why biodiversity increases closer to the equator. One of these hypotheses is the greater age of the ecosystems in the tropics versus temperate regions that were largely devoid of life or drastically impoverished during the last glaciation. The idea is that greater age provides more time for . Another possible explanation is the increased energy the tropics receive from the sun versus the decreased energy that temperate and polar regions receive. It is not entirely clear how greater energy input could translate into more species. Another hypothesis is that the complexity of tropical ecosystems may promote speciation by increasing the heterogeneity, or number of ecological niches, in the tropics relative to higher latitudes. The greater heterogeneity provides more opportunities for coevolution, specialization, and perhaps greater selection pressures leading to population differentiation. However, this hypothesis suffers from some circularity—ecosystems with more species encourage speciation, but how did they get more species to begin with? Another hypothesis is that the tropics are more more stable than temperate regions, which have a pronounced climate and day-length seasonality. The tropics have their own forms of seasonality, such as rainfall, but they are generally assumed to be more stable environments and this stability might promote speciation.
Regardless of the mechanisms, it is certainly true that all levels of biodiversity are greatest in the tropics. Additionally, there are more in the tropics. Endemic species are species that are found in only one location. However, this richness of diversity in the tropics also means that knowledge of species is lowest, and there is a high potential for biodiversity loss.
In 1988, British environmentalist Norman Myers developed a conservation concept to identify areas rich in species and at significant risk for species loss: . Biodiversity hotspots are geographical areas that contain high numbers of endemic species. The purpose of the concept was to identify important locations on the planet for conservation efforts, a kind of conservation triage. By protecting hotspots, governments are able to protect a larger number of species. The original criteria for a hotspot included the presence of 1500 or more endemic plant species and 70 percent of the area disturbed by human activity. There are now 34 biodiversity hotspots (Fig 9.2) containing large numbers of endemic species, which include half of Earth’s endemic plants.
Where is biodiversity the highest for all taxa?
A. Near the equator
B. Near the poles
C. At high latitudes
D. In the ocean
(the number of species present in an area) varies across the globe (Fig 9.1). One factor in determining species richness is latitude, with the greatest species richness occurring in ecosystems near the equator, which often have warmer temperatures, large amounts of rainfall, and low seasonality. The lowest species richness occurs near the poles, which are much colder, drier, and thus less conducive to life. The predictability of climate or productivity is also an important factor. Other factors influence species richness as well. For example, the study of island biogeography attempts to explain the relatively high species richness found in certain isolated island chains, including the Galápagos Islands that inspired the young Darwin.
, also known as , is the number of individuals in a species relative to the total number of individuals in all species within a habitat, ecosystem, or biome. Foundation species (primary producers) often have the highest relative abundance of species.
Traditionally, ecologists have measured biodiversity by taking into account both species richness and relative species abundance. Biodiversity can be estimated at a number of levels of organization of living things. These estimation indexes, which came from information theory, are most useful as a first step in quantifying biodiversity between and within ecosystems; they are less useful when the main concern among conservation biologists is simply the loss of biodiversity. However, biologists recognize that measures of biodiversity, in terms of species diversity, may help focus efforts to preserve the biologically or technologically important elements of biodiversity.
What is the difference between species richness and species evenness
A. Species richness is a more accurate measure of biodiversity
B. Species evenness is a more accurate measure of biodiversity
C. Species richness only counts the number of species present while species evenness accounts for the relative abundance
D. Species evenness only counts the number of species present while species richness includes the relative abundance
Biodiversity over spatial scales
Whittaker (1972) described three terms for measuring biodiversity over spatial scales: alpha, beta, and gamma diversity. refers to the diversity within a particular area or ecosystem, and is usually expressed by the number of species (i.e., species richness) in that ecosystem. For example, if we are monitoring the effect that British farming practices have on the diversity of native birds in a particular region of the country, then we might want to compare species diversity within different ecosystems, such as an undisturbed deciduous wood, a well-established hedgerow bordering a small pasture, and a large arable field. We can walk a transect in each of these three ecosystems and count the number of species we see; this gives us the alpha diversity for each ecosystem (Table 9.1).
If we examine the change in species diversity between these ecosystems then we are measuring the We are counting the total number of species that are unique to each of the ecosystems being compared. For example, the beta diversity between the woodland and the hedgerow habitats is 7 (representing the 5 species found in the woodland but not the hedgerow, plus the 2 species found in the hedgerow but not the woodland). Thus, beta diversity allows us to compare diversity between ecosystems (Table 9.1).
is a measure of the overall diversity for the different ecosystems within a region. Hunter (2002: 448) defines gamma diversity as “geographic-scale species diversity”. In the example in Table 9.1, the total number of species for the three ecosystems is 14, which represent the gamma diversity.
Match the terms to their definitions.
Terms: Alpha diversity, beta diversity, gamma diversity
A. the species diversity between two communities or ecosystems.
B. the total species diversity in a landscape.
C. the species diversity in a site at a local scale.
What level of diversity would an ecologist use to describe the diversity of the entire planet?
What level of diversity would an ecologist use to describe the species richness of their backyard?
Types of Biodiversity
Scientists generally accept that the term biodiversity describes the number and kinds of species in a location or on the planet. Species can be difficult to define, but most biologists still feel comfortable with the concept and are able to identify and count eukaryotic species in most contexts. Biologists have also identified alternate measures of biodiversity, some of which are important for planning how to preserve biodiversity.
Genetic diversity is one of those alternate concepts. Genetic diversity or variation is the raw material for adaptation in a species. A species’ future potential for adaptation depends on the genetic diversity held in the genomes of the individuals in populations that make up the species. The same is true for higher taxonomic categories. A genus with very different types of species will have more genetic diversity than a genus with species that look alike and have similar ecologies. If there were a choice between one of these genera of species being preserved, the one with the greatest potential for subsequent evolution is the most genetically diverse one. It would be ideal not to have to make such choices, but increasingly this may be the norm.
Many genes code for proteins, which in turn carry out the metabolic processes that keep organisms alive and reproducing. Genetic diversity can be measured as chemical diversity in that different species produce a variety of chemicals in their cells, both the proteins as well as the products and byproducts of metabolism. This chemical diversity has potential benefit for humans as a source of pharmaceuticals, so it provides one way to measure diversity that is important to human health and welfare.
Humans have generated diversity in domestic animals, plants, and fungi. This diversity is also suffering losses because of migration, market forces, and increasing globalism in agriculture, especially in heavily populated regions such as China, India, and Japan. The human population directly depends on this diversity as a stable food source, and its decline is troubling biologists and agricultural scientists.
It is also useful to define ecosystem diversity, meaning the number of different ecosystems on the planet or in a given geographic area (Fig 9.3). Whole ecosystems can disappear even if some of the species might survive by adapting to other ecosystems. The loss of an ecosystem means the loss of interactions between species, the loss of unique features of coadaptation, and the loss of biological productivity that an ecosystem is able to create. An example of a largely extinct ecosystem in North America is the prairie ecosystem. Prairies once spanned central North America from the boreal forest in northern Canada down into Mexico. They are now all but gone, replaced by crop fields, pasture lands, and suburban sprawl. Many of the species survive, but the hugely productive ecosystem that was responsible for creating the most productive agricultural soils is now gone. As a consequence, soils are disappearing or must be maintained at greater expense.
The 6th Mass Extinction
The Lake Victoria cichlids (Fig 9.4) provide an example through which we can begin to understand biodiversity. The biologists studying cichlids in the 1980s discovered hundreds of cichlid species representing a variety of specializations to particular habitat types and specific feeding strategies: eating plankton floating in the water, scraping and then eating algae from rocks, eating insect larvae from the bottom, and eating the eggs of other species of cichlid. The cichlids of Lake Victoria are the product of an adaptive radiation. An adaptive radiation is a rapid (less than three million years in the case of the Lake Victoria cichlids) branching through speciation of a phylogenetic tree into many closely related species; typically, the species “radiate” into different habitats and niches. The Galápagos finches are an example of a modest adaptive radiation with 15 species. The cichlids of Lake Victoria are an example of a spectacular adaptive radiation that includes about 500 species.
At the time biologists were making this discovery, some species began to quickly disappear. A culprit in these declines was a species of large fish that was introduced to Lake Victoria by fisheries to feed the people living around the lake. The Nile perch was introduced in 1963, but lay low until the 1980s when its populations began to surge. The Nile perch population grew by consuming cichlids, driving species after species to the point of (the disappearance of a species). In fact, there were several factors that played a role in the extinction of perhaps 200 cichlid species in Lake Victoria: the Nile perch, declining lake water quality due to agriculture and land clearing on the shores of Lake Victoria, and increased fishing pressure. Scientists had not even catalogued all of the species present—so many were lost that were never named. The diversity is now a shadow of what it once was.
The cichlids of Lake Victoria are a thumbnail sketch of contemporary rapid species loss that occurs all over Earth and is caused by human activity. Extinction is a natural process of macroevolution that occurs at the rate of about one out of 1 million species becoming extinct per year. The fossil record reveals that there have been five periods of mass extinction in history with much higher rates of species loss, and the rate of species loss today is comparable to those periods of mass extinction. However, there is a major difference between the previous mass extinctions and the current extinction we are experiencing: human activity. Specifically, three human activities have a major impact: destruction of habitat, introduction of exotic species, and over-harvesting. Predictions of species loss within the next century, a tiny amount of time on geological timescales, range from 10 percent to 50 percent. Extinctions on this scale have only happened five other times in the history of the planet, and they have been caused by cataclysmic events that changed the course of the history of life in each instance. Earth is now in one of those times.
Lake Victoria contained almost 500 species of cichlids alone, ignoring the other fish families present in the lake. All of these species were found only in Lake Victoria; therefore, the 500 species of cichlids were . Endemics with highly restricted distributions are particularly vulnerable to extinction. Higher taxonomic levels, such as genera and families, can also be endemic.
is the study of the distribution of the world’s species—both in the past and in the present. The work of biogeographers is critical to understanding our physical environment, how the environment affects species, and how environmental changes impact the distribution of a species; it has also been critical to developing evolutionary theory. Biogeographers need to understand both biology and ecology. They also need to be well-versed in evolutionary studies, soil science, and climatology.
There are three main fields of study under the heading of biogeography: ecological biogeography, historical biogeography (called paleobiogeography), and conservation biogeography. Ecological biogeography studies the current factors affecting the distribution of plants and animals. Historical biogeography, as the name implies, studies the past distribution of species. Conservation biogeography, on the other hand, is focused on the protection and restoration of species based upon known historical and current ecological information. Each of these fields considers both zoogeography and phytogeography—the past and present distribution of animals and plants.
The Importance of Biodiversity to Human Life
It may not be clear why biologists are concerned about biodiversity loss. When biodiversity loss is thought of as the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the dodo bird, and even the wooly mammoth, the loss may appear to be an emotional one. Biodiversity may provide important psychological benefits to humans. Additionally, there are moral arguments for the maintenance of biodiversity.
But is the loss practically important for the welfare of the human species? From the perspective of evolution and ecology, the loss of a particular individual species is unimportant (however, the loss of a keystone species can lead to ecological disaster). Extinction is a normal part of macroevolution. But the accelerated extinction rate means the loss of tens of thousands of species within our lifetimes, and it is likely to have dramatic effects on human welfare through the collapse of ecosystems and in added costs to maintain food production, clean air and water, and human health.
Agriculture began after early hunter-gatherer societies first settled in one place and heavily modified their immediate environment. This cultural transition has made it difficult for humans to recognize their dependence on undomesticated living things on the planet. Biologists recognize the human species is embedded in ecosystems and is dependent on them, just as every other species on the planet is dependent. Technology smoothes out the extremes of existence, but ultimately the human species cannot exist without its ecosystem.
Humans use many compounds that were first discovered or derived from living organisms as medicines: secondary plant compounds, animal toxins, and antibiotics produced by bacteria and fungi. More medicines are expected to be discovered in nature. Loss of biodiversity will impact the number of pharmaceuticals available to humans.
Crop diversity is a requirement for food security, and it is being lost. The loss of wild relatives to crops also threatens breeders’ abilities to create new varieties. Ecosystems provide ecosystem services that support human agriculture: pollination, nutrient cycling, pest control, and soil development and maintenance. Loss of biodiversity threatens these ecosystem services and risks making food production more expensive or impossible. Wild food sources are mainly aquatic, but few are being managed for sustainability. Fisheries’ ability to provide protein to human populations is threatened when extinction occurs.
Bynum, N. (2022) Biodiversity. LibreTexts. Retrieved from https://bio.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Ecology/Biodiversity_(Bynum)
Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction
Lumen Learning. Fundamentals of Biology I. PressBooks. Retrieved from https://library.achievingthedream.org/herkimerbiologyfundamentals1/
variety of a biological system, typically conceived as the number of species, but also applying to genes, biochemistry, and ecosystems
organism with cells that have nuclei and membrane-bound organelles. Compare to prokaryote species.
formation of a new species
species native to one place
concept originated by Norman Myers to describe a geographical region with a large number of endemic species and a large percentage of degraded habitat
number of different species in a community
absolute population size of a particular species relative to the population sizes of other species within the community
synonymous with relative species abundance, that is, the absolute population size of a particular species relative to the population sizes of other species within the community
species diversity within a local scale, generally one ecosystem
ratio or difference in the diversity of a species between multiple ecosystems or communities
overall species diversity measured over many different ecosystems in a biome
disappearance of a species from Earth; local extinction is the disappearance of a species from a region
study of the geographic distribution of living things and the abiotic factors that affect their distribution