RSPB Scotland’s Kirsty Nutt discusses what biodiversity actually means and why it matters ahead of International Biodiversity Day on 22 May.
What does biodiversity mean anyway?
One of the hardest parts of my job is convincing colleagues that many of the words they use every day mean absolutely nothing to most people.
Nature documentaries and Springwatch have made many problematic words more well-known, but with so much of the science and policy work in conservation using technical language it can make it harder than it should be for people to get involved in conversations. Nature and wildlife are so widely engaged with and loved, the words we use to talk about them should allow everyone to take part.
As the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) is coming up this week we thought we’d take a look at what biodiversity is and why it matters.
If you have any other tricky words you’d like us to cover in later blogs, let us know through Facebook and Twitter and we will try to tackle them too.
What is biodiversity?
The term biodiversity was coined in 1985 presumably by folk who were fed up of stumbling over saying biological diversity too many times. Try it. See not so easy.
Biodiversity is a contraction for biological diversity. It is often used interchangeably with environment and nature, but actually describes the entire variety of life on earth and how it interacts. It includes everything from genes to species to communities of organisms that live in the same place and even their interactions with their physical environment. It includes variation within a species, between species and between different areas in the world.
This is a lot, but it is important to understand the different scales at which variety exists and that we humans are as much a part of biodiversity as every other species and not separate from it. I believe this is critical to the way we think about our role in the world.
So why does biodiversity matter?
The biological diversity on earth provides us with the food we eat, the water we drink, the oxygen we breathe, medicines and materials. It protects us from flooding and supports climate stability.
It’s easy to understand that peat bogs and rainforests store carbon helping to tackle the climate crisis but look deeper and there is a wealth of other species that are required for this to happen. Bats, birds and bees pollinate rainforest trees allowing them to grow fertile fruits and seeds while monkeys, rodents and other wildlife help spread those seeds so that closely-related seeds don’t grow close together ensuring higher genetic diversity within neighbouring trees is maintained and they remain healthy.
This is why maintaining the diversity is so important, as well as the joy it brings many of us from watching and learning about other life.
How much diversity is there and how is it doing?
Globally, there are currently approximately one and a half million species of animals, plants and fungi recorded, but there is likely to be vastly more yet undiscovered or unclassified. And if we include microscopic critters like bacteria, the numbers of distinct types of life is even greater. We are also just scratching the surface when it comes to better understanding genetic differences within species.
Worryingly much of this diversity might be disappearing before we even know it exists or have a chance to study it.
From the State of Nature Report 2019
In the UK there are 40 million birds fewer birds that there were 50 years ago, butterfly numbers have fallen by 17% and moths by 25% since the 1970s too and globally we risk a million species becoming extinct unless we rapidly transform the world’s economy, energy and food systems.
But there is hope, and there are changes we can make to the way we live which will help us create more sustainable food production systems, approaches to development, energy systems and tackle the climate and nature emergency.
The theme for this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) is "Our solutions are in nature" which seems very fitting. We must remember that we are a part of the biological diversity on earth and that if we look after nature, nature will look after us.
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