What is Biodiversity and Why does it Matter?

With a range of yellows, oranges, reds, greens, and blues, poison dart frogs make their way throw life showing off and warning predators of their toxic skin. They can be found in trees, as well as under leaves, logs, and rocks on the floor of the forest. Because of their size, from 1/2 to 2 inches long, they are hard to see but a golden poison dart frog has enough poison to kill approximately 20,000 mice. Not only are they great at evading predators but they do a great deal for the ecosystem. Throughout their lifecycles, amphibians have an important place in the food chain. As tadpoles, they eat algae, helping regulate blooms and reducing the chances of algal contamination. They also keep insect populations at bay; these include insects that humans aren’t a fan of like adult mosquitoes and their larvae that can transmit diseases including Dengue fever, Malaria, West Nile fever and Zika. However, these frogs are declining as some have been listed as threatened or endangered.

Dmitrij Rodionov (DR) / CC BY-SA

The disappearance of these frogs can disturb an intricate food web with cascading effects felt throughout an entire ecosystem, lowering the biodiversity of the area. Biodiversity is the variety and variability of all species and populations on Earth. People depend on biodiversity in their daily lives, but we don’t always think about it.

The Impact on Humans

Human health ultimately depends on ecosystem products and services such as the availability of fresh water, food, and fuel sources.  Biodiversity loss can have significant human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. For example a larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops. One third of all our food—fruits and vegetables—would not exist without pollinators visiting flowers, but honeybees, the primary species that fertilizes food-producing plants, have suffered dramatic declines in recent years.

Additionally, many new medicines are harvested from nature, such as a fungi that grows on the fur of sloths and can fight cancer. Loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems.

The value of natural goods and services is estimated to be about $33 trillion per year which is double the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year. For reference, in 2010 the GDP of the United States was only $14.66 trillion and the GDP of the European Union was a comparable $14.82 trillion.

However, as the human population rises wild area shrink, cleared for farmland, housing and industrial sites which inherently also lowers the biodiversity of an area. Another aspect lowering biodiversity is pollution. Orcas and dolphins are seriously harmed by long-lived industrial pollutants and amphibians have suffered one of the greatest declines of all animals due to a fungal disease thought to be spread around the world by the pet trade.

Billions of individual populations have been lost all over the planet, with the number of animals living on Earth having plunged by half since 1970. The extinction rate of species is now thought to be about 1,000 times higher than before humans dominated the planet, which may be even faster than the losses after a giant meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Therefore if humans would like to keep benefiting from these natural goods and services then biodiversity must be preserved. We can all help. Most wildlife is destroyed by land being cleared for cattle, soy, palm oil, timber and leather. Most of us consume these products every day, with palm oil being found in many foods and toiletries. Choosing only sustainable options helps, as does eating less meat, particularly beef, which has an large environmental footprint.

article by Tatiana Eaves

Additional Reading

Biodiversity – World Health Organization

What You Can Do to Protect Biodiversity – Columbia University

Thumbnail Image:

Blue Poison Dart Frog: I, Wildfeuer / CC BY-SA

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