It sounds unbelievable, but there are an estimated 8.7 million species on the Earth — plants, fungi, animals, insects, fish, bacteria, people — and we’ve only identified and described 1.3 million of them. That’s what biodiversity is: the biologically diverse life found in all ecosystems on the planet, even cities. That includes us!
Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is quite a new term. Coined in the 1980s by scientist and biologist Edward O. Wilson, he wrote a series of papers that championed the planet’s rich life and highlighted the fundamental importance of the connection between all living things. Wilson also invented the term “biophilia”, defining our predisposed wonder of other forms of life, especially plants.
The value of biodiversity
CSIRO’s Dr Steve Morton articulates the importance of biodiversity through five values: economic, life support, cultural, recreational and scientific — all essential to the preservation and prosperity of life on Earth. For example, communities and economies benefit from rich biodiversity through practices like fishing and forestry; it naturally provides clean water, pollinates crops, distributes nutrients and manages pests; it inspires wonder through art and literature; it provides an avenue for recreation like bushwalking, birdwatching and camping; and it provides immense scientific value through its sheer breadth of diversity. In other words, biodiversity defines our way of life.
Everything is connected
Dr Bill Nye (the Science Guy) uses a Jenga stack to simply illustrate biodiversity’s place as the building blocks of life. He explains that species come and go through the ages, and if we lose one or two it’s not a big deal, but when we lose too many, our intricate biologically diverse environment comes tumbling down with catastrophic consequences. Thankfully, we aren’t quite there yet (phew).
Because every species is connected, biodiversity is crucial to food production, especially for humans. “Monoculture” is a term used for farming crops, like corn. You can see it all over the planet; rows and rows and rows of a single, uniformed plantation. As the name suggests, this type of farming isn’t biologically diverse and creates an environment that doesn’t support a wide variety of species, often leading to the use of chemicals to manage pests and disease. It also reduces the amount of space available for biodiverse ecosystems to thrive – the less space we have for biodiversity, the less diverse our planet is and the closer we get to Bill Nye’s Jenga scenario.
In Australia, 80% of plant and animal species are only found naturally here. And there are 11 other “megadiversity” countries that combine with Australia to hold 75% of the world’s biodiversity. Places like the Amazon are home to incredibly rich biodiversity. We have an obligation to preserve our biodiversity for the good of all life on earth.
Much like Wilson’s biophilia concept, biodiversity is a planetary characteristic that we must celebrate and preserve. Climate change, monoculture farming and our growing cities are all threats to biodiversity if left unchecked. So, next time you’re walking through a park or driving out of the city, take a moment to acknowledge the astounding amount of life on this planet. The fascination is real, we can tell you that much.