Why Biodiversity Matters: In the Grip of Global Extinction


"The one ongoing process that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us."

Dr. E.O. Wilson's words remind us that although extinction is a necessary part of the life cycle, its pace in the era of man is catastrophically high. Estimates on that pace differ—from 10 times to 1,000 times the historic rate—but the severity is beyond question: we are witnessing one of the greatest losses of biodiversity in Earth’s history. NatureServe's data show that in the United States alone, more than 500 species are extinct or missing. Worldwide, as many as half of all species alive today are hurtling unchecked toward oblivion.

The weight of that reality is daunting. But there are reasons to hope—human ingenuity and conviction among them. Here are our Top 8 Reasons to continue the focus on biodiversity:

 

Feeding the World

Photo of corn in Pennsylvania by Garen MeguerianA mere 20 species provide about 90 percent of the world's food. All major food crops—including corn, wheat, and soybeans—need new genes from the wild to cope with evolving disease and pests. The security of our food supply weakens if wild relatives of these crop species are lost. Relying on single crop strains—especially in the face of a changing climate—is risky in the short term, and impossible in the long term. For example, a wild relative of corn called milpilla (Zea diploperennis) is exceptionally disease-resistant and is the only perennial in the corn family. If successfully interbred with domestic corn, its genes could boost corn production by billions of dollars. Zea diploperennis grows on only one mountain in western Mexico.

 

Cures Awaiting Discovery

Photo of common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) by Shannan MortimerForty percent of the prescription medicines dispensed in the United States derive from plants, animals, or microorganisms. The list of wonder drugs originated from wild species includes aspirin (from meadowsweet), penicillin (from the pencillium fungi), digitoxin for cardiac treatment (from common foxglove), L-dopa for Parkinson's disease (from velvet bean), taxol for ovarian cancer (from the Pacific yew), and quinine for malaria (from yellow cinchona). We have only begun to tap these medicinal possibilities, especially given recent estimates that we have only named roughly 15 percent of the species that share the planet with us.

 

A Wealth of Natural Resources

Photo of seaweed farmers in Indonesia by Fadil BasymelehSociety derives most of life's necessities—food, clothing, medicine—from just a small number of plants and animals. Thousands of natural products are used routinely by industry to produce everyday goods. Consider just one wild source: compounds derived from seaweeds are used in plastics, polishes, paints, deodorants, detergents, dyes, fire-extinguishing foams, lubricants, meat preservatives, and chicken feed, to name a few among hundreds of products. By preserving the diversity of life, we act as trustee for the planet, preserving genetic capital for use by future generations.

 

Services That Sustain Us

Photo of Brazilian Amazon near Manaus by Neil Palmer | CIFOREcologists and economists are only beginning to estimate the value that healthy ecosystems provide. Bacteria break down organic material, thus building and fertilizing the soil. Wetlands filter pollutants from drinking water. Insects pollinate many of our crop species. Bats, spiders, and other insectivores eat harmful pests. Trees and plants return oxygen to the air. Vast South American forests create rainfall on a continental scale and store carbon as a buffer against global climate change. If it were ever possible for humankind to artificially duplicate these services, the cost would total trillions of dollars annually, and very likely surpass the value of all the world’s economies combined.

 

The Web of Life

Photo of a sea otter (Enhydra lutris) by Josh MoreSome species appear to be "keystones in the arch," supporting entire ecosystems, such as the sea otter in the Pacific coastal ecosystem. When these keystone species disappear, the web of life unravels as complex interrelationships of predator, prey, parasite, or mutual benefit are lost. We also know little about how these complex relationships change as climate change, habitat loss, or other pressures alter ecosystems. It is a reckless gamble to lose, through apathy or greed, something that we might one day realize was vital.

 

The Thirst for Knowledge

Photo of a tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) by Sid MosdellEach species is the result of millions of years of adaptation, a unique wonder with its own lessons to teach. More than any man-made creation, species awe us with their complexity, especially as science increasingly comprehends the mysteries of the genetic code. That desire for knowledge for its own sake is intrinsic to our nature. The millions of undiscovered species are a scientific frontier we will never conquer, but they must be preserved in order to be studied.

 

The Beautiful Muse

Photo of elephants at sunrise by Rob GrowlerSameness is boring. We are innately drawn to variety in landscapes, and wild places provide beautiful variety that enriches our lives. Whether the destination is Yellowstone, Hawaii, the Alaska coast or Africa's savanna, people the world over travel thousands of miles simply to see and experience diverse landscapes and the diverse species that call them home. The beauty of nature is man’s original and enduring inspiration—a fact that underlies much of the world’s great religions and art.

 

Our Living Legacy

Photo of discarded oyster shells by Neil BakerWe will never recapture the wild land that Native Americans knew, where oysters formed reefs that rose above the surface of the Chesapeake Bay and rockfish were so plentiful that the first English settlers claimed they scooped them from the water in frying pans—where majestic longleaf pine forests stretched for thousands of square miles across the Southeast coastal plain and bison roamed the prairies by the millions, and ranged as far east as Atlanta. But we can and should preserve examples of these characteristic landscapes, with their constituent species intact. They help us understand the past and the people that shaped us, and in turn are a legacy we can hand to future generations.