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Biodiversity and Conservation Biology. 55. Key Concepts. Biodiversity is quantified at the level of allelic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity.

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Biodiversity and conservation biology

Biodiversity and

Conservation Biology


Key concepts
Key Concepts

  • Biodiversity is quantified at the level of allelic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity.

  • According to recent analyses, the sixth mass extinction in the history of life is occurring due to habitat loss, overexploitation, and global climate change.

  • Humans depend on biodiversity for the products that wild species provide and for ecosystem services that protect the quality of the abiotic environment.

Key concepts1
Key Concepts

  • Solutions to the biodiversity crisis include protecting key habitats, lowering human population growth and resource use, restoring ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and supporting sustainable development.


  • The species and resources on our planet are limited, but the human population is growing unchecked.

  • Biologists fear that this surge in human population will drastically affect biodiversity.

What is biodiversity
What Is Biodiversity?

  • Biodiversity can be thought of as the tree of life, which describes the evolutionary relationships among all forms of life. The branches represent all of the lineages of organisms living today and the tips represent all of the species.

  • When biodiversity increases, branches and tips are added to the tree. When extinctions occur, tips and perhaps branches are removed.

Measuring and analyzing biodiversity
Measuring and Analyzing Biodiversity

  • To get a complete understanding of the diversity of life, biologists recognize and analyze biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem level.

  • Genetic diversity is the total genetic information contained within all individuals of a species, measured as the number and relative frequency of all alleles present in a species.

  • Species diversity is the variety of life-forms on Earth, measured as the number and relative frequency of species in a particular region.

Measuring and analyzing biodiversity1
Measuring and Analyzing Biodiversity

  • Recent efforts to document species diversity have used a new technique called bar coding: the use of a well-characterized gene sequence to identify distinct species, using the phylogenetic species concept.

  • Taxonomic diversity, an additional aspect of species diversity, is important because some lineages on the tree of life are extremely species rich while other lineages are extremely species poor.

  • Measuring and analyzing biodiversity2
    Measuring and Analyzing Biodiversity

    • Ecosystem diversity is the variety of biotic communities in a region, along with abiotic components such as soil, water, and nutrients.

    • Attempts to measure ecosystem diversity focus on capturing the array of biotic communities and the variation of physical conditions in a region.

    • Biodiversity is dynamic—it has been changing since life on Earth began.

    Change through time
    Change through Time

    • Biodiversity can be recognized and quantified on several distinct levels, but it is also dynamic.

      • Mutations that create new alleles increase genetic diversity; natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow may eliminate certain alleles or change their frequency, leading to an increase or decrease in overall genetic diversity.

      • Speciation increases species diversity; extinction decreases it.

      • New ecosystems may form as a result of changes in abiotic conditions; disturbances, on the other hand, can destroy ecosystems.

    How many species are living today
    How Many Species Are Living Today?

    • Approximately 1.5 million species have been cataloged to date, but this represents only a tiny fraction of the number actually present.

    • Two general approaches have been used to estimate the total number of species:

      • Surveys of species-rich groups at small sites (taxon-specific surveys).

      • Surveys of all the species present in a particular region (all-taxa surveys).

    Taxon specific surveys
    Taxon-Specific Surveys

    • Researchers estimated the number of insect species living in the canopy of a single tropical tree. They identified over 900 species of beetles alone.

    • From these data, they estimated that the world total of arthropod species exceeds 30 million species.

    • More recently, a taxon-specific survey of marine mollusks identified 2738 species, supporting the hypothesis that the 93,000 known mollusk species may represent just a third to a half of the actual total.

    All taxa surveys
    All-Taxa Surveys

    • The first effort to find and catalog all of the species present in a large area, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is now under way.

    • The survey started in 1999 and will be finished in 2015.

    • To date, over 890 new species, and over 6300 species that had never before been found in the park, have been discovered.

    Where is biodiversity highest
    Where Is Biodiversity Highest?

    • In most taxonomic groups, species richness is highest in the tropics and declines toward the poles.

    • The tropical rain forests are particularly species rich. Even though they represent just 7 percent of Earth’s land area, they are thought to contain at least 50 percent of all species present.

    Hotspots of biodiversity and endemism
    Hotspots of Biodiversity and Endemism

    • Biodiversity hotspots are regions that are much more species rich than others.

    • In addition, some regions of the world have a high proportion of endemicspecies—species that are found in a particular area and nowhere else.

    Conservation hotspots
    Conservation Hotspots

    • Biologists are studying the geographic distribution of biodiversity as a way of focusing conservation efforts.

    • Conservation hotspots are regions that contain at least 1500 endemic plant species and from which at least 70 percent of the traditional or primary vegetation has been lost.

    • These conservation hotspots are areas that are in most urgent need of conservation action and where efforts to preserve habitat would have the highest return on investment.

    Threats to biodiversity
    Threats to Biodiversity

    • Although extinction is natural, the rates of extinction are increasing.

    • Today, species are vanishing faster than at virtually any other time in Earth’s history. Modern rates of extinction are 100 to 1000 times greater than the average, or “background,” rate recorded in the fossil record over the past 550 million years.

    • Directly or indirectly, recent extinctions are being caused by human population growth.

    • Most biologists agree that the sixth mass extinction in the history of multicellular life is now under way.

    Changes in the nature of the problem
    Changes in the Nature of the Problem

    • Most extinctions that have occurred over the past 1000 years took place on islands as the result of overhunting or introduction of exoticspecies—nonnative competitors, diseases, or predators.

    • Fossil evidence on islands in the South Pacific suggests that about 2000 bird species were wiped out as people colonized this area around A.D. 1200.

    Changes in the nature of the problem1
    Changes in the Nature of the Problem

    • Starting in the twentieth century, though, two patterns in species loss began to change:

      • Endangeredspecies, species that are almost certain to go extinct without effective conservation programs, are now more likely to live on continents than on islands.

      • Habitat destruction has replaced overhunting and introduction of exotic species as the primary threat to such species worldwide.

    Changes in the nature of the problem2
    Changes in the Nature of the Problem

    • Recent analysis of causes of endangerment for 488 endangered species native to Canada show several patterns:

      • Habitat loss is the single most important factor in the decline of these species.

      • Virtually all of the endangered species are affected by more than one factor.

      • Overharvesting is the dominant problem for marine species, while pollution plays a large role for freshwater species.

      • Factors beyond human control can also be important.

    Changes in the nature of the problem3
    Changes in the Nature of the Problem

    • Although invasive species are a major problem in some regions, most analyses completed to date are broadly consistent with the Canadian data.

    • Overhunting has also emerged recently as a dire threat to many mammal populations in Africa and southeast Asia.

    Habitat destruction
    Habitat Destruction

    • Humans cause habitat destruction in many ways, from logging and burning forests, to grazing livestock, filling in wetlands, and building housing developments.

    • On a global scale, one of the most important types of habitat destruction is deforestation. As many as 3 million hectares (ha) have been deforested each year in the Amazon in the 1990s.

    • The global rate of deforestation has now slowed compared with these rates, but as of 2005, 7.3 million ha/year are still being lost.

    Habitat destruction1
    Habitat Destruction

    • The total area of wet tropical forest dropped by 2.36 percent during 2000–2005.

    • If this rate of tropical deforestation continues, over 28 percent of the wet tropical forest that exists today will be gone in your lifetime, including almost half of the Brazilian Amazon.

    • Forest loss in South America and Africa is particularly important because it is occurring in biodiversity hotspots.

    Habitat fragmentation
    Habitat Fragmentation

    • Human activities also result in habitat fragmentation—the breakup of large, contiguous areas of natural habitat into small, isolated pieces.

    • Habitat fragmentation concerns biologists for several reasons:

      • Habitat fragmentation can reduce habitats to a size that is too small to support some species.

      • Fragmentation reduces the ability of individuals to disperse from one habitat to another. Small, isolated populations may be more vulnerable to catastrophes, and can suffer from inbreeding depression and loss of alleles due to genetic drift.

    Habitat fragmentation1
    Habitat Fragmentation

    • Fragmentation creates large amounts of “edge” habitat. These fragmented habitats can suffer a rapid loss of species diversity and a startling drop in biomass.

  • When habitats are fragmented, the quality and quantity of habitat decline drastically.

  • Habitat fragmentation2
    Habitat Fragmentation

    • A long-term experiment in a tropical wet forest is documenting the decline in habitat quality caused by fragmentation.

    • Plots of different sizes were shown to have a rapid loss of species diversity, especially from the smaller fragments; and astartling drop in biomass, or the total amount of fixed carbon, in the study plots located near the edges of logged fragments.

    • This experiment demonstrates that when habitats are fragmented, the quality and quantityof habitat decline drastically.

    Biodiversity and conservation biology

    Habitat Fragmentation

    Web Activity: Habitat Fragmentation

    Problems in small populations
    Problems in Small Populations

    • The small, isolated populations that make up a metapopulation are more likely than large populations to be wiped out because:

      • Stochastic—chance—catastrophic events such as storms, disease outbreaks, or fires exterminate small populations more readily than large populations.

      • Small populations suffer from inbreeding depression and random loss of alleles due to genetic drift.

    • Fitness declines in small, isolated populations can be documented by experimentally increasing gene flow; introducing new alleles may counteract the effects of genetic drift and inbreeding.

    Climate change
    Climate Change

    • Climate change might change extinction rates:

      • Loss of coral reefs due to high-temperature-induced “bleaching.”

      • Loss of habitat for species native to arctic and alpine tundras.

      • Trees and other slowly dispersing species are unable to track changes in climate.

      • Ocean acidification—due to increased carbon dioxide concentrations—inhibit the ability of marine animals to make calcium carbonate skeletons.

    Can biologists predict future extinction rates
    Can Biologists Predict Future Extinction Rates?

    • To estimate current extinction rates and predict how they might change in the near future, biologists use two approaches:

      • Direct counts of extinct species.

      • Using species–area relationships to predict the consequences of habitat destruction.

    Estimates based on direct counts
    Estimates Based on Direct Counts

    • The best information on current extinction rates comes from studies on birds.

    • Recent analyses suggest that birds have been going extinct at a rate 100 times the background rate, or at a rate of one species per year rather than one species per 100 years. This rate is also expected to increase.

    • Similar trends are occurring in other well-studied groups.

    Species area relationships
    Species–Area Relationships

    • Biologists can use habitat-loss projections to estimate rates of extinction based on well-documented species–area relationships.

    • Over many different habitat types, the relationship is consistently described by the function S = cAz, where S is the number of species, c is a constant that is high in species-rich areas and low in species-poor areas, A is habitat area, and z is the slope of the line on a log-log plot of species number versus area.

    • Thus, z describes how rapidly species numbers change with area. Typically, z is about 0.25. When z is higher, more species are predicted to be lost.

    Why is biodiversity important
    Why Is Biodiversity Important?

    • Biodiversity has both economic and biological benefits.

    Economic benefits of biodiversity
    Economic Benefits of Biodiversity

    • Wild species have provided the raw material to fuel the development of human societies ever since the first large-scale, highly organized cultures began to develop about 10,000 years ago:

      • Plants yield food and fiber.

      • Animals provide food, labor, and material goods.

      • Protein can be harvested from the oceans.

      • Plants, animals, and fungi can be processed as sources of medicines.

    Economic benefits of biodiversity1
    Economic Benefits of Biodiversity

    • The direct use of biodiversity continues today:

      • Seed banks—long-term storage facilities—are used to preserve diverse strains of crop plants.

      • Insect-pollinated crops produce $40 billion worth of products annually.

      • Bioprospecting research focuses on assessing different organisms as novel sources of drugs or ingredients in consumer products.

      • In bioremediation, organisms are used to metabolize pollutants and render them harmless.

    Economic benefits of biodiversity2
    Economic Benefits of Biodiversity

    • Recreation based on visiting wild places, or ecotourism, is a major industry internationally and is growing rapidly.

    • Vegetation on steep slopes and wetlands in low-lying areas dramatically reduces flood damage and the danger posed by mudslides.

  • In addition, the benefits of biodiversity extend beyond the direct use of diverse genes and species by humans to include ecosystem services―processes that increase the quality of the abiotic environment.

  • Biological benefits of biodiversity
    Biological Benefits of Biodiversity

    • The productivity of ecosystems depends on the number and type of species present, or the biodiversity.

    • Species richness has a positive impact on net primary productivity (NPP), the total amount of photosynthesis per unit area per year that ends up in biomass.

    • This may be due to resource-use efficiency, facilitation, and sampling effects.

    Biodiversity increases productivity
    Biodiversity Increases Productivity

    • Follow-up experiments in an array of ecosystems not only supported the conclusion that species richness has a positive impact on NPP, but showed that several causal mechanisms may be at work:

      • Resource use efficiency—when species diversity is high, more overall water is used and more photosynthesis can occur.

      • Facilitation—certain species facilitate the growth of other species by providing them with nutrients, partial shade, or other benefits.

    Biodiversity increases productivity1
    Biodiversity Increases Productivity

    • Sampling effects—in many habitats one or two species are extremely productive. Simply due to sampling, high-species plots will tend to outproduce low-species plots.

  • The three mechanisms are not mutually exclusive—several can operate at the same time.

  • Long-term experiments have shown that the reason for the pattern can change over time.

  • Does biodiversity lead to stability
    Does Biodiversity Lead to Stability?

    • The stability of a community refers to its ability to do the following:

      • Withstand a disturbance without changing.

      • Recover to former levels of productivity or species richness after a disturbance.

      • Maintain productivity and other aspects of ecosystem function as conditions change over time.

    • Resistance is a measure of how much a community is affected by a disturbance.

    Does biodiversity lead to stability1
    Does Biodiversity Lead to Stability?

    • Resilience is a measure of how quickly a community recovers following a disturbance.

    • Communities that are more diverse appear to be more productive, more resistant to disturbance and invasion, and more resilient than communities that are less diverse.

    • Increased species richness increases the services provided by ecosystems.

    • If ecosystems are simplified by extinctions, productivity and other attributes might decrease.

    Preserving biodiversity
    Preserving Biodiversity

    • The conservation of biodiversity is urgent because, unlike other environmental problems, extinction is irreversible.

    • The only solution to the biodiversity crisis is to prevent the loss of alleles, species, and ecosystems.

    Designing effective protected areas
    Designing Effective Protected Areas

    • Biologists joined with government agencies, economists, community leaders, private landowners, and others to set aside protected areas.

    • So far, 11.5 percent of Earth’s terrestrial surface has been set aside as protected areas.

    • Researchers are using a geographic approach called the Gap Analysis Program (GAP) to assess the effectiveness of the current system of protected areas.

    Gap analysis program
    Gap Analysis Program

    • The Gap Analysis Program (GAP) identifies gaps between geographic areas that are particularly rich in biodiversity and areas that are actually managed for the preservation of biodiversity.

    • One recent GAP analysis combined data sets on the distribution of mammals, birds, amphibians, and freshwater turtles with a map of world protected areas. The analysis revealed that the ranges of many species occur completely outside any protected areas.

    • Most GAP analyses suggest that the 11.5 percent of Earth’s surface area that is now being managed for biodiversity will not be enough to conserve many species.

    Designing effective protected areas1
    Designing Effective Protected Areas

    • To connect populations that would otherwise be isolated, wildlife corridors are being created.

    • The goals of these corridors are:

      • To allow areas to be recolonized if a species is lost in a particular area.

      • To introduce new alleles that would counteract the deleterious effects of inbreeding and genetic drift.

    • Experimental evidence suggests that wildlife corridors are effective.

    Beyond protected areas a comprehensive approach
    Beyond Protected Areas: A Comprehensive Approach

    • Given the magnitude of the current extinction rate, the continued growth in human population size and resource use, and the difficulty of setting up enough preserved areas in the world’s conservation hotspots, conservation biologists are advocating a multipronged strategy.

    • Preserving land will not be enough. At least four other strategies need to be an important part of a lasting solution to the biodiversity crisis.

    Sustainable development
    Sustainable Development

    • In almost every case, the underlying causes of the biodiversity crisis are socioeconomic factors that encourage the short-term overexploitation of land and other resources and discourage long-term sustainability.

    • Sustainability is the managed use of resources at a rate no faster than the rate at which they are replaced.

    • The challenge is to create ways for humans to live off the resources that are being produced continuously on Earth, rather than mining resources that have been stored for centuries or millennia.

    Stabilizing human population size and resource use
    Stabilizing Human Population Size and Resource Use

    • Most biologists recognize that it may be impossible to preserve high species diversity and high-functioning ecosystems if:

      • The human population grows to 13 billion or more over the next century; and

      • Individuals in the industrialized nations continue to use fossil fuels and other resources at the current rate.

    • Efforts to limit family size and resource use are critical to solving the biodiversity crisis.

    Ex situ conservation
    Ex Situ Conservation

    • One approach to coping with impending extinctions is referred to as ex situ conservation—the preservation of species in zoos, aquaria, wildlife ranches, seed banks, or other artificial settings.

    • Some species—including Pere David’s deer, Przewalski’s horse, and the Arabian oryx—are extinct in the wild and exist only in captivity.

    • In other cases, captive breeding and reintroduction programs have succeeded in creating wild populations of endangered species.

    Ecosystem restoration
    Ecosystem Restoration

    • In many areas of the world, ecosystems are already heavily degraded or lost.

    • Thousands of large-scale and small-scale ecosystem restoration and reforestation projects are now occurring around the globe.

    • In 2004, Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize to honor her work founding the Green Belt Movement—a reforestation organization that has now sponsored the planting of over 1 billion trees, beginning in Kenya and expanding internationally.

    Ecosystem restoration1
    Ecosystem Restoration

    • One of the most successful ecological restoration efforts focused on the seasonally dry forest at the Area de Conservación Guanacaste in northwestern Costa Rica.

    • The primary task was to stop human-caused fires.

    • Their efforts since the mid-1980s have succeeded in transforming a vast swath of marginally productive ranching land into an increasingly popular ecotourist destination and a water source for neighboring farms and ranches.

    A case history the malpai badlands
    A Case History: The Malpai Badlands

    • In response to threats from development, a group of ranchers banded together to form an association they called the Malpai Borderlands group. To preserve biodiversity and their livelihood, the ranchers:

      • Protected 42,000 acres of their land with conservation easements.

      • Set up cooperative “grassbanks,” available to ranchers whose own grazing areas are suffering from short-term drought.

      • Reintroduced fire to the area via prescribed burns, which removes encroaching woody shrubs and encourages the growth of native grasses.

    A case history the malpai badlands1
    A Case History: The Malpai Badlands

    • Today, the Malpai Borderlands group is considered a model of innovative action by private individuals, in cooperation with governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

      • The project benefits local people as well as biodiversity.

    • It can be done. Your generation is facing the most serious global environmental crisis in the history of our species. The decisions you make, ranging from how many children you have to how much you drive a car, will have far-reaching consequences.

    • Change happens one person at a time.