Biodiversity is life. Extinction is accelerating. We need to save as many life forms as possible.
Biodiversity is the amazing living web of all organisms on the planet. It includes plants, mammals, fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and fungi microbes as they interact with each other, air, water, and the land.
Healthy ecosystems require a vast assortment of life with multiple interdependencies. If one or more species is removed from this environment, no longer serving its niche, it can cause cascading harm to the ecosystem. Even the littlest life forms are essential. Food, shelter, and raising young are the major connections that tie species together. Insects prey on plants, birds prey on insects, and birds eat fruit and spread seeds that promote the growth of plants. Fungi, invertebrates, and microorganisms break down organic matter, converting it into the simplest forms of micro/macronutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Plants feed on this decomposed organic matter. Animals and insects feed and shelter in plants. Plants shelter in CO2 and emit oxygen. This is a simple description of the web of life. In reality, it is complex and not well understood.
At least 60% of species remain unknown or unnamed, and even less have been deeply studied. So it should come as no surprise that we don’t understand all the intricate connections of the ecosystems. We don’t even notice that we drive one species to extinction, and we have erased the relationships with other species. We rarely understand the consequences.
The cycle of life is regenerating if we give it the care and space it needs. We are also creatures of nature. Biodiversity affects our food supply, our medicine, and our well-being. The living world took 3.8 billion years of evolution. When we harm the cycle of life, we lose much that cannot be replaced. Biodiversity is the lifeblood of our planet.
Today we are facing accelerated species extinction around the world.
We are seeing extinctions of plants, birds, fish, mammals, invertebrates, and reptiles at higher rates. In 2021 the ivory-billed woodpecker was one of 22 species of birds, fish, mussels, bats, and one species of plant that were declared extinct during 2021 in the US.
Of the species being evaluated (only a part of the total population), the table shows extinction percentages from 12% to over 50%. Extinction is on the rise and when each species dies it erases its web of connections weakening the ecosystem with a cascading effect. Coral reefs are the life centers of the ocean. Already, 19% of the world’s coral reefs are dead, 75% of the coral reef is threatened, 25% of all marine life depends on coral reefs, and 500M people depend on coral reefs for food, income, and coastal protection.
The type of ecosystem zone has a major impact on biodiversity.
There is a big difference between the biological richness and geographical range of a species. In tropical environments, the biodiversity is much richer in the number of species. At the same time, they are more vulnerable. “ For example, you can expect to find about fifty species of ants in a square kilometer in New England temperate forest… but up to ten times that number in a comparable area of the rain forest in Ecuador or Borneo.” A large number of species in North America are living across the continent. In South America species occupy smaller ranges, sustain smaller populations, and due to competition are more special in where they live and eat. Hence, the damage of clear-cutting a tropical forest will create a larger impact on biodiversity.
Biodiversity loss happens fastest in tropical forests, coral reefs, and rivers and streams in both tropical and temperate regions. The primary reasons for vanishing biodiversity are habitat destruction, invasive species, use of pesticides, over-harvesting/hunting, and climate change. Let’s explore them a bit more.
The relationship between the size of the habitat area and the number of species is known and has been for years. If 90% of a habitat area is removed, the number of species that can persist sustainably will be about half. Of the remaining habitat if another 1% is removed the species collapses and disappears. Unfortunately, this is the state of many habitats around the world. As people have settled around the world, we have damaged habitats in our wake. We have used and fragmented habitats to the extent that many species are not surviving.
Invasive species come from another part of the world where they are adapted to their native niche. In their native ecosystem, they interact within the web of life as predators, prey, and competitors keep their populations in balance. Once an invasive species is unleashed in a new habitat it can destroy the existing ecosystem. In early 1900 the eastern part of North America was home to over 3 -4 million American Chestnut trees. These beautiful and bountiful trees grew to 100 feet tall and 9 feet around. In 1904 they were devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease that came from Chinese chestnut trees that were introduced. The American Chestnut tree was virtually extinct in 50 years. Seven moth species whose caterpillars depended on it vanished and the last of the carrier pigeons plummeted to extinction. What other species were impacted by this event? We will never know.
Use of Pesticides
Pesticides are used in agriculture to improve crop yield. This tide of chemicals has produced bigger crops to feed many. At the same time, it has had unintended consequences for nature and humans. For example, Edward O. Wilson shared that “ By 2014, there was an 81% decline in Monaco butterflies in the United States midwest population, attributed to a 58% decline in milkweeds, the exclusive food plant of the monarch caterpillars. Milkweed was reduced because of increased weed killer in corn and soybean fields. The crops were genetically modified to resist the weed-killer, while the milkweed was not protected. Migrating monarch butterflies in the US and Mexico declined steeply.” *1. We are seeing a movement to better forms of agriculture moving away from mono-crops and heavy pesticides.
Marine waters have suffered from over-harvesting resulting in a reduced number of members of a species to the extent that they can no longer reproduce and survive. The number of larger food and sports species – tuna, swordfish, sharks, and larger round fish (cod, halibut, flounder, red snapper) has fallen by 90% since 1950. Cod was so abundant at the time of the pilgrims; now 99% is essentially gone.
Climate changes are already affecting biodiversity from changing growing systems, fires, flooding, and more. The warming of the Arctic has dramatically reduced the snow and ice covers that provide denying and foraging habitats for polar bears. As the entire ecosystem cannot pick up and move, we need to reduce our footprints and our impact on the climate to protect biodiversity.
All of these factors interact to create the rapid extinction that species are experiencing. We are at a tipping point, where without corrective action we will see collapses and disappearances of species. These losses will not be recoverable.
We need to save as many life forms as possible
The pathway forward to becoming the guardians to care for and restore nature is to support biodiversity. Let’s navigate this moment in time to save as many species as possible.
Edward O. Wilson suggested the Half-Earth solution. Increase the wild area (untouched by humans) to 50% of the planet. While we figure out lots of other ways to reduce our footprint and care for nature, we can give it space to thrive. “If biodiversity is given space & security, most of the large fraction of species now endangered will regain suitability on their own.” #1
Habitats protected by governments and agencies already account for 15% of Earth’s land area and it increases a little each year. Let’s accelerate the increase of protected habitats.
Actions That Make a Difference
- Go Native In Your Backyard – Transform your backyard or patio to green your town or city with native plants to help restore habitat for local wildlife and the ecological balance. The book by the National Wildlife Federation (an OPL Recommended Read) Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife by David Mizejewsk is a great guide to help you get started. (Link to our book blog)
- Support Organizations Protecting Biodiversity – Support organizations working to increase protected and restored wild habitats. There are concerned people around the world working too hard to save as much as we can. See our list of organizations focused on protecting and restoring biodiversity. See our OPL Insight, “Protected Land by State.”
- Increase WildLife Crossings – Support creating more special-purpose natural wildlife Bridgets to reconnect natural habitats. See our blog “You’ll Be Amazed By These Wildlife Bridges” and our insight “Wildlife Crossings Around the World”.
- Protect and Restore Waterways – Join a beach, stream, or wetland clean-up day. When visiting nature, leave no trace.
- Avoid Pesticides – Buy/eat food from organic and local farmers. Don’t use pesticides in your yard, transform it into a native backyard.
- Sustainable Fish – buy and eat sustainable fish to avoid over-harvested seafood.
- Reduce your Footprint – Leverage our app to make and track joyful changes that reduce your impact on the planet.
You can be a caretaker of this wonderful planet. Find ways to care for and expand wild places, restore nature even in your own yard or patio, and reduce your footprint. When opening the door to living green with love and respect for all the planet, we can’t help but take action to save as much as possible of this living planet.
#1 Half-Earth, Our planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Willson
#2 Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife by David Mezejewski
Organizations Focused on Biodiversity
- The Nature Conservancy
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
- Turtle Survival Alliance
- The Orianne Society
- The Xerces Society
- Working Dogs for Conservation & Conservation Canines
- Integral Ecology Research Center
- Ocean Conservancy
- World Wildlife Fund
- International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)
- International Institute for Environment and Development
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- Plant Conservation Alliance
- Conservation International
- Fauna & Flora International
- International Union for Conservation of Nature Resources (IUCN)
- Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
- United Nations Environment Programme
- Coral Relief Alliance
- Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
- Sierra Club
- International Rhino Foundation
- The Jane Goodall Institute
- PADI Aware Foundation
- The International Crane Foundation
- The Wildlife Conservation Society
- International Union for Conservation of Nature
- Gorilla Doctors
- Defenders of Wildlife