Biologists estimate that species extinctions are currently 500–1000 times the normal, or background, rate seen previously in Earth’s history. The current high rates will cause a precipitous decline in the biodiversity of the planet in the next century or two. The loss of biodiversity will include many species we know today. Although it is sometimes difficult to predict which species will become extinct, many are listed as endangered (at great risk of extinction). However, many extinctions will affect species that biologist have not yet discovered. Most of these “invisible” species that will become extinct currently live in tropical rainforests like those of the Amazon basin. These rainforests are the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and are being destroyed rapidly by deforestation. Between 1970 and 2011, almost 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest was lost.
Biodiversity is a broad term for biological variety, and it can be measured at a number of organizational levels. Traditionally, ecologists have measured biodiversity by taking into account both the number of species and the number of individuals of each species (known as relative abundance). However, biologists are using different measures of biodiversity, including genetic diversity, to help focus efforts to preserve the biologically and technologically important elements of biodiversity.
Biodiversity loss refers to the reduction of biodiversity due to displacement or extinction of species. The loss of a particular individual species may seem unimportant to some, especially if it is not a charismatic species like the Bengal tiger or the bottlenose dolphin. However, the current accelerated extinction rate means the loss of tens of thousands of species within our lifetimes. Much of this loss is occurring in tropical rainforests like the one pictured in Figure 1, which are very high in biodiversity but are being cleared for timber and agriculture. This is likely to have dramatic effects on human welfare through the collapse of ecosystems.
Biologists recognize that human populations are embedded in ecosystems and are dependent on them, just as is every other species on the planet. 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 living things other than crops and domesticated animals on the planet. Today our technology smooths out the harshness of existence and allows many of us to live longer, more comfortable lives, but ultimately the human species cannot exist without its surrounding ecosystems. Our ecosystems provide us with food, medicine, clean air and water, recreation, and spiritual and aesthetical inspiration.
Types of Biodiversity
A common meaning of biodiversity is simply the number of species in a location or on Earth; for example, the American Ornithologists’ Union lists 2078 species of birds in North and Central America. This is one measure of the bird biodiversity on the continent. More sophisticated measures of diversity take into account the relative abundances of species. For example, a forest with 10 equally common species of trees is more diverse than a forest that has 10 species of trees wherein just one of those species makes up 95 percent of the trees. Biologists have also identified alternate measures of biodiversity, some of which are important in planning how to preserve biodiversity.
Genetic diversity is one alternate concept of biodiversity. Genetic diversity is the raw material for evolutionary adaptation in a species and is represented by the variety of genes present within a population. A species’ potential to adapt to changing environments or new diseases depends on this genetic diversity.
It is also useful to define ecosystem diversity: the number of different ecosystems on Earth or in a geographical area. The loss of an ecosystem means the loss of the interactions between species 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 (Figure 2). 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 our most productive agricultural soils is now gone. As a consequence, their soils are now being depleted unless they are maintained artificially at great expense. The decline in soil productivity occurs because the interactions in the original ecosystem have been lost.
Current Species Diversity
Despite considerable effort, knowledge of the species that inhabit the planet is limited. A recent estimate suggests that only 13% of eukaryotic species have been named (Table 1). Estimates of numbers of prokaryotic species are largely guesses, but biologists agree that science has only just begun to catalog their diversity. . Given that Earth is losing species at an accelerating pace, science knows little about what is being lost.
|Estimated Numbers of Described and Predicted species
|Source: Mora et al 2011
|Source: Chapman 2009
|Source: Groombridge and Jenkins 2002
There are various initiatives to catalog described species in accessible and more organized ways, and the internet is facilitating that effort. Nevertheless, at the current rate of species description, which according to the State of Observed Species1 reports is 17,000–20,000 new species a year, it would take close to 500 years to describe all of the species currently in existence. The task, however, is becoming increasingly impossible over time as extinction removes species from Earth faster than they can be described.
Naming and counting species may seem an unimportant pursuit given the other needs of humanity, but it is not simply an accounting. Describing species is a complex process by which biologists determine an organism’s unique characteristics and whether or not that organism belongs to any other described species. It allows biologists to find and recognize the species after the initial discovery to follow up on questions about its biology. That subsequent research will produce the discoveries that make the species valuable to humans and to our ecosystems. Without a name and description, a species cannot be studied in depth and in a coordinated way by multiple scientists.
Patterns of Biodiversity
Biodiversity is not evenly distributed on the planet. Lake Victoria contained almost 500 species of cichlids (just one family of fishes that are present in the lake) before the introduction of an exotic species in the 1980s and 1990s caused a mass extinction. All of these species were found only in Lake Victoria, which is to say they were endemic. Endemic species are found in only one location. For example, the blue jay is endemic to North America, while the Barton Springs salamander is endemic to the mouth of one spring in Austin, Texas. Endemic species with highly restricted distributions, like the Barton Springs salamander, are particularly vulnerable to extinction.
Lake Huron contains about 79 species of fish, all of which are found in many other lakes in North America. What accounts for the difference in diversity between Lake Victoria and Lake Huron? Lake Victoria is a tropical lake, while Lake Huron is a temperate lake. Lake Huron in its present form is only about 7,000 years old, while Lake Victoria in its present form is about 15,000 years old. These two factors, latitude and age, are two of several hypotheses biogeographers have suggested to explain biodiversity patterns on Earth.
Biogeography 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 changes in environment impact the distribution of a species.
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 the known historical and current ecological information.
One of the oldest observed patterns in ecology is that biodiversity typically increases as latitude declines. In other words, biodiversity increases closer to the equator (Figure 3).
It is not yet clear why biodiversity increases closer to the equator, but hypotheses include the greater age of the ecosystems in the tropics versus temperate regions, which were largely devoid of life or drastically impoverished during the last ice age. The greater age provides more time for speciation, the evolutionary process of creating new species. Another possible explanation is the greater energy the tropics receive from the sun. But scientists have not been able to explain how greater energy input could translate into more species. The complexity of tropical ecosystems may promote speciation by increasing the habitat complexity, thus providing more ecological niches. Lastly, the tropics have been perceived as being more stable than temperate regions, which have a pronounced climate and day-length seasonality. The stability of tropical ecosystems might promote speciation. Regardless of the mechanisms, it is certainly true that biodiversity is greatest in the tropics. There are also high numbers of endemic species.
Importance of Biodiversity
Loss of biodiversity may have reverberating consequences on ecosystems because of the complex interrelations among species. For example, the extinction of one species may cause the extinction of another. Biodiversity is important to the survival and welfare of human populations because it has impacts on our health and our ability to feed ourselves through agriculture and harvesting populations of wild animals.
Many medications are derived from natural chemicals made by a diverse group of organisms. For example, many plants produce compounds meant to protect the plant from insects and other animals that eat them. Some of these compounds also work as human medicines. Contemporary societies that live close to the land often have a broad knowledge of the medicinal uses of plants growing in their area. For centuries in Europe, older knowledge about the medical uses of plants was compiled in herbals—books that identified the plants and their uses. Humans are not the only animals to use plants for medicinal reasons. The other great apes, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have all been observed self-medicating with plants.
Modern pharmaceutical science also recognizes the importance of these plant compounds. Examples of significant medicines derived from plant compounds include aspirin, codeine, digoxin, atropine, and vincristine (Figure 4). Many medications were once derived from plant extracts but are now synthesized. It is estimated that, at one time, 25 percent of modern drugs contained at least one plant extract. That number has probably decreased to about 10 percent as natural plant ingredients are replaced by synthetic versions of the plant compounds. Antibiotics, which are responsible for extraordinary improvements in health and lifespans in developed countries, are compounds largely derived from fungi and bacteria.
Aside from representing billions of dollars in profits, these medications improve people’s lives. Pharmaceutical companies are actively looking for new natural compounds that can function as medicines. It is estimated that one third of pharmaceutical research and development is spent on natural compounds and that about 35 percent of new drugs brought to market between 1981 and 2002 were from natural compounds.
Finally, it has been argued that humans benefit psychologically from living in a biodiverse world. The chief proponent of this idea is famed entomologist E. O. Wilson. He argues that human evolutionary history has adapted us to living in a natural environment and that built environments generate stresses that affect human health and well-being. There is considerable research into the psychologically regenerative benefits of natural landscapes that suggest the hypothesis may hold some truth.
Since the beginning of human agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, human groups have been breeding and selecting crop varieties. This crop diversity matched the cultural diversity of highly subdivided populations of humans. For example, potatoes were domesticated beginning around 7,000 years ago in the central Andes of Peru and Bolivia. The people in this region traditionally lived in relatively isolated settlements separated by mountains. The potatoes grown in that region belong to seven species and the number of varieties likely is in the thousands. Each variety has been bred to thrive at particular elevations and soil and climate conditions. The diversity is driven by the diverse demands of the dramatic elevation changes, the limited movement of people, and the demands created by crop rotation for different varieties that will do well in different fields.
Potatoes are only one example of agricultural diversity. Every plant, animal, and fungus that has been cultivated by humans has been bred from original wild ancestor species into diverse varieties arising from the demands for food value, adaptation to growing conditions, and resistance to pests. The potato demonstrates a well-known example of the risks of low crop diversity: during the tragic Irish potato famine (1845–1852 AD), the single potato variety grown in Ireland became susceptible to a potato blight—wiping out the crop. The loss of the crop led to famine, death, and mass emigration. Resistance to disease is a chief benefit to maintaining crop biodiversity and lack of diversity in contemporary crop species carries similar risks. Seed companies, which are the source of most crop varieties in developed countries, must continually breed new varieties to keep up with evolving pest organisms. These same seed companies, however, have participated in the decline of the number of varieties available as they focus on selling fewer varieties in more areas of the world replacing traditional local varieties.
The ability to create new crop varieties relies on the diversity of varieties available and the availability of wild forms related to the crop plant. These wild forms are often the source of new gene variants that can be bred with existing varieties to create varieties with new attributes. Loss of wild species related to a crop will mean the loss of potential in crop improvement. Maintaining the genetic diversity of wild species related to domesticated species ensures our continued supply of food.
Since the 1920s, government agriculture departments have maintained seed banks of crop varieties as a way to maintain crop diversity. This system has flaws because over time seed varieties are lost through accidents and there is no way to replace them. In 2008, the Svalbard Global seed Vault, located on Spitsbergen island, Norway, (Figure) began storing seeds from around the world as a backup system to the regional seed banks. If a regional seed bank stores varieties in Svalbard, losses can be replaced from Svalbard should something happen to the regional seeds. The Svalbard seed vault is deep into the rock of the arctic island. Conditions within the vault are maintained at ideal temperature and humidity for seed survival, but the deep underground location of the vault in the arctic means that failure of the vault’s systems will not compromise the climatic conditions inside the vault.
Although crops are largely under our control, our ability to grow them is dependent on the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they are grown. That biodiversity creates the conditions under which crops are able to grow through what are known as ecosystem services—valuable conditions or processes that are carried out by an ecosystem. Crops are not grown, for the most part, in built environments. They are grown in soil. Although some agricultural soils are rendered sterile using controversial pesticide treatments, most contain a huge diversity of organisms that maintain nutrient cycles—breaking down organic matter into nutrient compounds that crops need for growth. These organisms also maintain soil texture that affects water and oxygen dynamics in the soil that are necessary for plant growth. Replacing the work of these organisms in forming arable soil is not practically possible. These kinds of processes are called ecosystem services. They occur within ecosystems, such as soil ecosystems, as a result of the diverse metabolic activities of the organisms living there, but they provide benefits to human food production, drinking water availability, and breathable air.
Other key ecosystem services related to food production are plant pollination and crop pest control. It is estimated that honeybee pollination within the United States brings in $1.6 billion per year; other pollinators contribute up to $6.7 billion. Over 150 crops in the United States require pollination to produce. Many honeybee populations are managed by beekeepers who rent out their hives’ services to farmers. Honeybee populations in North America have been suffering large losses caused by a syndrome known as colony collapse disorder, a new phenomenon with an unclear cause. Other pollinators include a diverse array of other bee species and various insects and birds. Loss of these species would make growing crops requiring pollination impossible, increasing dependence on other crops.
Finally, humans compete for their food with crop pests, most of which are insects. Pesticides control these competitors, but these are costly and lose their effectiveness over time as pest populations adapt. They also lead to collateral damage by killing non-pest species as well as beneficial insects like honeybees, and risking the health of agricultural workers and consumers. Moreover, these pesticides may migrate from the fields where they are applied and do damage to other ecosystems like streams, lakes, and even the ocean. Ecologists believe that the bulk of the work in removing pests is actually done by predators and parasites of those pests, but the impact has not been well studied. A review found that in 74 percent of studies that looked for an effect of landscape complexity (forests and fallow fields near to crop fields) on natural enemies of pests, the greater the complexity, the greater the effect of pest-suppressing organisms. Another experimental study found that introducing multiple enemies of pea aphids (an important alfalfa pest) increased the yield of alfalfa significantly. This study shows that a diversity of pests is more effective at control than one single pest. Loss of diversity in pest enemies will inevitably make it more difficult and costly to grow food. The world’s growing human population faces significant challenges in the increasing costs and other difficulties associated with producing food.
Wild Food Sources
In addition to growing crops and raising food animals, humans obtain food resources from wild populations, primarily wild fish populations. For about one billion people, aquatic resources provide the main source of animal protein. But since 1990, production from global fisheries has declined. Despite considerable effort, few fisheries on Earth are managed sustainability.
Fishery extinctions rarely lead to complete extinction of the harvested species, but rather to a radical restructuring of the marine ecosystem in which a dominant species is so over-harvested that it becomes a minor player, ecologically. In addition to humans losing the food source, these alterations affect many other species in ways that are difficult or impossible to predict. The collapse of fisheries has dramatic and long-lasting effects on local human populations that work in the fishery. In addition, the loss of an inexpensive protein source to populations that cannot afford to replace it will increase the cost of living and limit societies in other ways. In general, the fish taken from fisheries have shifted to smaller species and the larger species are overfished. The ultimate outcome could clearly be the loss of aquatic systems as food sources.
Threats to Biodiversity
The core threat to biodiversity on the planet, and therefore a threat to human welfare, is the combination of human population growth and the resources used by that population. The human population requires resources to survive and grow, and many of those resources are being removed unsustainably from the environment. The three greatest proximate threats to biodiversity are habitat loss, overharvesting, and introduction of exotic species. The first two of these are a direct result of human population growth and resource use. The third results from increased mobility and trade. A fourth major cause of extinction, anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, has not yet had a large impact, but it is predicted to become significant during this century. Global climate change is also a consequence of human population needs for energy and the use of fossil fuels to meet those needs (Figure 1). Environmental issues, such as toxic pollution, have specific targeted effects on species, but are not generally seen as threats at the magnitude of the others.
Humans rely on technology to modify their environment and make it habitable. Other species cannot do this. Elimination of their habitat—whether it is a forest, coral reef, grassland, or flowing river—will kill the individuals in the species. Remove the entire habitat and the species will become extinct, unless they are among the few species that do well in human-built environments. Human destruction of habitats (habitat generally refers to the part of the ecosystem required by a particular species) accelerated in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Consider the exceptional biodiversity of Sumatra: it is home to one species of orangutan, a species of critically endangered elephant, and the Sumatran tiger, but half of Sumatra’s forest is now gone. The neighboring island of Borneo, home to the other species of orangutan, has lost a similar area of forest. Forest loss continues in protected areas of Borneo. The orangutan in Borneo is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but it is simply the most visible of thousands of species that will not survive the disappearance of the forests of Borneo. The forests are removed for timber and to plant palm oil plantations (Figure 2). Palm oil is used in many products including food products, cosmetics, and biodiesel in Europe. A 5-year estimate of global forest cover loss for the years from 2000 to 2005 was 3.1%. Much loss (2.4%) occurred in the tropics where forest loss is primarily from timber extraction. These losses certainly also represent the extinction of species unique to those areas.
BIOLOGY IN ACTION: Preventing Habitat Destruction with Wise Wood Choices
Most consumers do not imagine that the home improvement products they buy might be contributing to habitat loss and species extinctions. Yet the market for illegally harvested tropical timber is huge, and the wood products often find themselves in building supply stores in the United States. One estimate is that up to 10% of the imported timber in the United States, which is the world’s largest consumer of wood products, is illegally logged. In 2006, this amounted to $3.6 billion in wood products. Most of the illegal products are imported from countries that act as intermediaries and are not the originators of the wood.
How is it possible to determine if a wood product, such as flooring, was harvested sustainably or even legally? The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies sustainably harvested forest products. Looking for their certification on flooring and other hardwood products is one way to ensure that the wood has not been taken illegally from a tropical forest. There are certifications other than the FSC, but these are run by timber companies, thus creating a conflict of interest. Another approach is to buy domestic wood species. While it would be great if there was a list of legal versus illegal woods, it is not that simple. Logging and forest management laws vary from country to country; what is illegal in one country may be legal in another. Where and how a product is harvested and whether the forest from which it comes is being sustainably maintained all factor into whether a wood product will be certified by the FSC. It is always a good idea to ask questions about where a wood product came from and how the supplier knows that it was harvested legally.
Habitat destruction can affect ecosystems other than forests. Rivers and streams are important ecosystems and are frequently the target of habitat modification. Damming of rivers affects flow and access to habitat. Altering a flow regime can reduce or eliminate populations that are adapted to seasonal changes in flow. For example, an estimated 91% of riverways in the United States have been modified with damming or stream bank modification. Many fish species in the United States, especially rare species or species with restricted distributions, have seen declines caused by river damming and habitat loss. Research has confirmed that species of amphibians that must carry out parts of their life cycles in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats are at greater risk of population declines and extinction because of the increased likelihood that one of their habitats or access between them will be lost. This is of particular concern because amphibians have been declining in numbers and going extinct more rapidly than many other groups for a variety of possible reasons.
Overharvesting is a serious threat to many species, but particularly to aquatic species. There are many examples of regulated fisheries (including hunting of marine mammals and harvesting of crustaceans and other species) monitored by fisheries scientists that have nevertheless collapsed. The western Atlantic cod fishery is the most spectacular recent collapse. While it was a hugely productive fishery for 400 years, the introduction of modern factory trawlers in the 1980s and the pressure on the fishery led to it becoming unsustainable. The causes of fishery collapse are both economic and political in nature.
Most fisheries are managed as a common resource, available to anyone willing to fish, even when the fishing territory lies within a country’s territorial waters. Common resources are subject to an economic pressure known as the tragedy of the commons, in which fishers have little motivation to exercise restraint in harvesting a fishery when they do not own the fishery. The general outcome of harvests of resources held in common is their overexploitation. While large fisheries are regulated to attempt to avoid this pressure, it still exists in the background. This overexploitation is exacerbated when access to the fishery is open and unregulated and when technology gives fishers the ability to overfish. In a few fisheries, the biological growth of the resource is less than the potential growth of the profits made from fishing if that time and money were invested elsewhere. In these cases—whales are an example—economic forces will drive toward fishing the population to extinction.
Coral reefs are extremely diverse marine ecosystems that face peril from several processes. Reefs are home to 1/3 of the world’s marine fish species—about 4000 species—despite making up only one percent of marine habitat. Most home marine aquaria house coral reef species that are wild-caught organisms—not cultured organisms. Although no marine species is known to have been driven extinct by the pet trade, there are studies showing that populations of some species have declined in response to harvesting, indicating that the harvest is not sustainable at those levels. There are also concerns about the effect of the pet trade on some terrestrial species such as turtles, amphibians, birds, plants, and even the orangutans.
Bush meat is the generic term used for wild animals killed for food. Hunting is practiced throughout the world, but hunting practices, particularly in equatorial Africa and parts of Asia, are believed to threaten several species with extinction. Traditionally, bush meat in Africa was hunted to feed families directly. However, recent commercialization of the practice now has bush meat available in grocery stores, which has increased harvest rates to the level of unsustainability. Additionally, human population growth has increased the need for protein foods that are not being met from agriculture. Species threatened by the bush meat trade are mostly mammals including many monkeys and the great apes living in the Congo basin.
Most exotic species introductions probably fail because of the low number of individuals introduced or poor adaptation to the ecosystem they enter. Some species, however, have characteristics that can make them especially successful in a new ecosystem. These exotic species often undergo dramatic population increases in their new habitat and reset the ecological conditions in the new environment, threatening the species that exist there. When this happens, the exotic species also becomes an invasive species. Invasive species can threaten other species through competition for resources, predation, or disease.
Lakes and islands are particularly vulnerable to extinction threats from introduced species. In Lake Victoria, the intentional introduction of the Nile perch was largely responsible for the extinction of about 200 species of cichlids. The accidental introduction of the brown tree snake via aircraft (Figure 4) from the Solomon Islands to Guam in 1950 has led to the extinction of three species of birds and three to five species of reptiles endemic to the island. Several other species are still threatened. The brown tree snake is adept at exploiting human transportation as a means to migrate; one was even found on an aircraft arriving in Corpus Christi, Texas. Constant vigilance on the part of airport, military, and commercial aircraft personnel is required to prevent the snake from moving from Guam to other islands in the Pacific, especially Hawaii. Islands do not make up a large area of land on the globe, but they do contain a disproportionate number of endemic species because of their isolation from mainland ancestors.
Many introductions of aquatic species, both marine and freshwater, have occurred when ships have dumped ballast water taken on at a port of origin into waters at a destination port. Water from the port of origin is pumped into tanks on a ship empty of cargo to increase stability. The water is drawn from the ocean or estuary of the port and typically contains living organisms such as plant parts, microorganisms, eggs, larvae, or aquatic animals. The water is then pumped out before the ship takes on cargo at the destination port, which may be on a different continent. The zebra mussel was introduced to the Great Lakes from Europe prior to 1988 in ballast water. The zebra mussels in the Great Lakes have created millions of dollars in clean-up costs to maintain water intakes and other facilities. The mussels have also altered the ecology of the lakes dramatically. They threaten native mollusk populations, but have also benefited some species, such as smallmouth bass. The mussels are filter feeders and have dramatically improved water clarity, which in turn has allowed aquatic plants to grow along shorelines, providing shelter for young fish where it did not exist before. The European green crab, Carcinus maenas, was introduced to San Francisco Bay in the late 1990s, likely in ship ballast water, and has spread north along the coast to Washington. The crabs have been found to dramatically reduce the abundance of native clams and crabs with resulting increases in the prey species of those native crabs.
Invading exotic species can also be disease organisms. It now appears that the global decline in amphibian species recognized in the 1990s is, in some part, caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which causes the disease chytridiomycosis (Figure 5). There is evidence that the fungus is native to Africa and may have been spread throughout the world by transport of a commonly used laboratory and pet species: the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis. It may well be that biologists themselves are responsible for spreading this disease worldwide. The North American bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana, which has also been widely introduced as a food animal but which easily escapes captivity, survives most infections of B. dendrobatidis and can act as a reservoir for the disease.
Early evidence suggests that another fungal pathogen, Geomyces destructans, introduced from Europe is responsible for white-nose syndrome, which infects cave-hibernating bats in eastern North America and has spread from a point of origin in western New York State (Figure 6). The disease has decimated bat populations and threatens extinction of species already listed as endangered: the Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis, and potentially the Virginia big-eared bat, Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus. How the fungus was introduced is unknown, but one logical presumption would be that recreational cavers unintentionally brought the fungus on clothes or equipment from Europe.
Climate change, and specifically the anthropogenic warming trend presently underway, is recognized as a major extinction threat, particularly when combined with other threats such as habitat loss. Anthropogenic warming of the planet has been observed and is due to past and continuing emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Scientists overwhelmingly agree the present warming trend is caused by humans and some of the likely effects include dramatic and dangerous climate changes in the coming decades. Scientists predict that climate change will alter regional climates, including rainfall and snowfall patterns, making habitats less hospitable to the species living in them. The warming trend will shift colder climates toward the north and south poles, forcing species to move (if possible) with their adapted climate norms.
The shifting ranges will impose new competitive regimes on species as they find themselves in contact with other species not present in their historic range. One such unexpected species contact is between polar bears and grizzly bears. Previously, these two species had separate ranges. Now, their ranges are overlapping and there are documented cases of these two species mating and producing viable offspring. Changing climates also throw off the delicate timing adaptations that species have to seasonal food resources and breeding times. Scientists have already documented many contemporary mismatches to shifts in resource availability and timing.
Other shifts in range have been observed. For example, one study indicates that European bird species ranges have moved 91 km (56.5 mi) northward, on average. The same study suggested that the optimal shift based on warming trends was double that distance, suggesting that the populations are not moving quickly enough. Range shifts have also been observed in plants, butterflies, other insects, freshwater fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.
Climate gradients will also move up mountains, eventually crowding species higher in altitude and eliminating the habitat for those species adapted to the highest elevations. Some climates will completely disappear. The rate of warming appears to be accelerated in the arctic, which is recognized as a serious threat to polar bear populations that require sea ice to hunt seals during the winter months. Seals are a critical source of protein for polar bears. A trend to decreasing sea ice coverage has occurred since observations began in the mid-twentieth century. The rate of decline observed in recent years is far greater than previously predicted by climate models.
Finally, global warming will raise ocean levels due to meltwater from glaciers and the greater volume occupied by warmer water. Shorelines will be inundated, reducing island size, which will have an effect on some species, and a number of islands will disappear entirely. Additionally, the gradual melting and subsequent refreezing of the poles, glaciers, and higher elevation mountains—a cycle that has provided freshwater to environments for centuries—will be altered. This could result in an overabundance of salt water and a shortage of fresh water.
Preserving biodiversity is an extraordinary challenge that must be met by greater understanding of biodiversity itself, changes in human behavior and beliefs, and various preservation strategies.
Change in Biodiversity through Time
The number of species on the planet, or in any geographical area, is the result of an equilibrium of two evolutionary processes that are ongoing: speciation and extinction. When speciation rates begin to outstrip extinction rates, the number of species will increase. Likewise, the reverse is true when extinction rates begin to overtake speciation rates. Throughout the history of life on Earth, as reflected in the fossil record, these two processes have fluctuated to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes leading to dramatic changes in the number of species on the planet as reflected in the fossil record (Figure 1).
Recent and Current Extinction Rates
Many biologists say that we are currently experience a sixth mass extinction and it mostly has to do with the activities of humans. There are numerous recent extinctions of individual species that are recorded in human writings. Most of these are coincident with the expansion of the European colonies since the 1500s.
One of the earlier and popularly known examples is the dodo bird. The dodo bird lived in the forests of Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. The dodo bird became extinct around 1662. It was hunted for its meat by sailors and was easy prey because the dodo, which did not evolve with humans, would approach people without fear. Introduced pigs, rats, and dogs brought to the island by European ships also killed dodo young and eggs (Figure 2).
These are only a few of the recorded extinctions in the past 500 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps a list of extinct and endangered species called the Red List. The list is not complete, but it describes 380 vertebrates that became extinct after 1500 AD, 86 of which were driven extinct by overhunting or overfishing.
Estimates of Present-day Extinction Rates
Estimates of extinction rates are hampered by the fact that most extinctions are probably happening without being observed. The extinction of a bird or mammal is often noticed by humans, especially if it has been hunted or used in some other way. But there are many organisms that are less noticeable to humans (not necessarily of less value) and many that are undescribed.
The background extinction rate is estimated to be about 1 per million species years (E/MSY). One “species year” is one species in existence for one year. One million species years could be one species persisting for one million years, or a million species persisting for one year. If it is the latter, then one extinction per million species years would be one of those million species becoming extinct in that year. For example, if there are 10 million species in existence, then we would expect 10 of those species to become extinct in a year. This is the background rate.
One contemporary extinction-rate estimate uses the extinctions in the written record since the year 1500. For birds alone, this method yields an estimate of 26 E/MSY, almost three times the background rate. However, this value may be underestimated for three reasons. First, many existing species would not have been described until much later in the time period and so their loss would have gone unnoticed. Second, we know the number is higher than the written record suggests because now extinct species are being described from skeletal remains that were never mentioned in written history. And third, some species are probably already extinct even though conservationists are reluctant to name them as such. Taking these factors into account raises the estimated extinction rate to nearer 100 E/MSY. The predicted rate by the end of the century is 1500 E/MSY.
A second approach to estimating present-time extinction rates is to correlate species loss with habitat loss, and it is based on measuring forest-area loss and understanding species–area relationships. The species-area relationship is the rate at which new species are seen when the area surveyed is increased (Figure 3). Likewise, if the habitat area is reduced, the number of species seen will also decline. This kind of relationship is also seen in the relationship between an island’s area and the number of species present on the island: as one increases, so does the other, though not in a straight line. Estimates of extinction rates based on habitat loss and species–area relationships have suggested that with about 90 percent of habitat loss an expected 50 percent of species would become extinct. Figure 3 shows that reducing forest area from 100 km2 to 10 km2, a decline of 90 percent, reduces the number of species by about 50 percent. Species–area estimates have led to estimates of present-day species extinction rates of about 1000 E/MSY and higher.
Conservation of Biodiversity
The threats to biodiversity have been recognized for some time. Today, the main efforts to preserve biodiversity involve legislative approaches to regulate human and corporate behavior, setting aside protected areas, and habitat restoration.
Changing Human Behavior
Legislation has been enacted to protect species throughout the world. The legislation includes international treaties as well as national and state laws. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty came into force in 1975. The treaty, and the national legislation that supports it, provides a legal framework for preventing “listed” species from being transported across nations’ borders, thus protecting them from being caught or killed when the purpose involves international trade. The listed species that are protected by the treaty number some 33,000. The treaty is limited in its reach because it only deals with international movement of organisms or their parts. It is also limited by various countries’ ability or willingness to enforce the treaty and supporting legislation. The illegal trade in organisms and their parts is probably a market in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Within many countries there are laws that protect endangered species and that regulate hunting and fishing. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted in 1973. When an at-risk species is listed by the Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is required by law to develop a management plan to protect the species and bring it back to sustainable numbers. The ESA, and others like it in other countries, is a useful tool, but it suffers because it is often difficult to get a species listed or to get an effective management plan in place once a species is listed.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is an agreement between the United States and Canada that was signed into law in 1918 in response to declines in North American bird species caused by hunting. The Act now lists over 800 protected species. It makes it illegal to disturb or kill the protected species or distribute their parts (much of the hunting of birds in the past was for their feathers). Examples of protected species include northern cardinals, the red-tailed hawk, and the American black vulture.
Global warming is expected to be a major driver of biodiversity loss. Many governments are concerned about the effects of anthropogenic global warming, primarily on their economies and food resources. Because greenhouse gas emissions do not respect national boundaries, the effort to curb them is international. The international response to global warming has been mixed. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that came out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that committed countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, was ratified by some countries, but spurned by others. Two countries that were especially important in terms of their potential impact that did not ratify the Kyoto protocol were the United States and China. Some goals for reduction in greenhouse gasses were met and exceeded by individual countries, but, worldwide, the effort to limit greenhouse gas production is not succeeding. A renegotiated 2016 treaty, called the Paris Agreement, once again brought nations together to take meaningful action on climate change. But like before, some nations are reluctant to participate. The newly-elected President Trump has indicated that he will withdraw the United States’ support of the agreement.
Conservation in Preserves
Establishment of wildlife and ecosystem preserves is one of the key tools in conservation efforts (Figure 4). A preserve is an area of land set aside with varying degrees of protection for the organisms that exist within the boundaries of the preserve. In 2003, the IUCN World Parks Congress estimated that 11.5 percent of Earth’s land surface was covered by preserves of various kinds. This area is large but only represents 9 out of 14 recognized major biomes and research has shown that 12 percent of all species live outside preserves.
A biodiversity hotspot is a conservation concept developed by Norman Myers in 1988. 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 species of endemic plants and 70 percent of the area disturbed by human activity. There are now 34 biodiversity hotspots (Figure 5) that contain large numbers of endemic species, which include half of Earth’s endemic plants.
There has been extensive research into optimal preserve designs for maintaining biodiversity. The fundamental principles behind much of the research have come from the seminal theoretical work of Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson published in 1967 on island biogeography.1 This work sought to understand the factors affecting biodiversity on islands. Conservation preserves can be seen as “islands” of habitat within “an ocean” of non-habitat. In general, large preserves are better because they support more species, including species with large home ranges; they have more core area of optimal habitat for individual species; they have more niches to support more species; and they attract more species because they can be found and reached more easily. One large preserve is better than the same area of several smaller preserves because there is more core habitat unaffected by less hospitable ecosystems outside the preserve boundary. For this same reason, preserves in the shape of a square or circle will be better than a preserve with many thin “arms.” If preserves must be smaller, then providing wildlife corridors (narrow strips of protected land) between two preserves is important so that species and their genes can move between them. All of these factors are taken into consideration when planning the nature of a preserve before the land is set aside.
In addition to the physical specifications of a preserve, there are a variety of regulations related to the use of a preserve. These can include anything from timber extraction, mineral extraction, regulated hunting, human habitation, and nondestructive human recreation. Many of the decisions to include these other uses are made based on political pressures rather than conservation considerations. On the other hand, in some cases, wildlife protection policies have been so strict that subsistence-living indigenous populations have been forced from ancestral lands that fell within a preserve. In other cases, even if a preserve is designed to protect wildlife, if the protections are not or cannot be enforced, the preserve status will have little meaning in the face of illegal poaching and timber extraction. This is a widespread problem with preserves in the tropics.
Climate change will create inevitable problems with the location of preserves as the species within them migrate to higher latitudes as the habitat of the preserve becomes less favorable. Planning for the effects of global warming on future preserves, or adding new preserves to accommodate the changes expected from global warming is in progress, but will only be as effective as the accuracy of the predictions of the effects of global warming on future habitats.
Finally, an argument can be made that conservation preserves reinforce the cultural perception that humans are separate from nature, can exist outside of it, and can only operate in ways that do damage to biodiversity. Creating preserves reduces the pressure on human activities outside the preserves to be sustainable and non-damaging to biodiversity. Ultimately, the political, economic, and human demographic pressures will degrade and reduce the size of conservation preserves if the activities outside them are not altered to be less damaging to biodiversity.
Habitat restoration is the process of bringing an area back to its natural state, before it was impacted through destructive human activities. It holds considerable promise as a mechanism for maintaining or restoring biodiversity. Reintroducing wolves, a top predator, to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 led to dramatic changes in the ecosystem that increased biodiversity. The wolves (Figure 6) function to suppress elk and coyote populations and provide more abundant resources to the detritivores. Reducing elk populations has allowed revegetation of riparian (the areas along the banks of a stream or river) areas, which has increased the diversity of species in that habitat. Reduction of coyote populations by wolves has increased the prey species previously suppressed by coyotes. In this habitat, the wolf is a keystone species, meaning a species that is instrumental in maintaining diversity within an ecosystem. Removing a keystone species from an ecological community causes a collapse in diversity. The results from the Yellowstone experiment suggest that restoring a keystone species effectively can have the effect of restoring biodiversity in the community. Ecologists have argued for the identification of keystone species where possible and for focusing protection efforts on these species. It makes sense to return the keystone species to the ecosystems where they have been removed.
The Role of Zoos and Captive Breeding
Zoos have sought to play a role in conservation efforts both through captive breeding programs and education (Figure 7). The transformation of the missions of zoos from collection and exhibition facilities to organizations that are dedicated to conservation is ongoing. In general, it has been recognized that, except in some specific targeted cases, captive breeding programs for endangered species are inefficient and often prone to failure when the species are reintroduced to the wild. Zoo facilities are far too limited to contemplate captive breeding programs for the numbers of species that are now at risk. Education, on the other hand, is a potential positive impact of zoos on conservation efforts, particularly given the global trend to urbanization and the consequent reduction in contacts between people and wildlife. A number of studies have been performed to look at the effectiveness of zoos on people’s attitudes and actions regarding conservation and at present, the results tend to be mixed.