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Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, & Environmental Decline

If you watch or read the news, you get the idea that biodiversity concerns are principally about pandas, tigers, elephants, whales, polar bears, etc. These are what conservation biologists refer to as the flagship species biodiversity, i.e. species who you are likely to recognize and care about. The flagship ecosystems are tropical rainforests and coral reefs. No matter how you divide up the planet in terms of what is important from a sustainability perspective, biodiversity is always one of the main categories. This probably seems strange to the average person who wonders why scientists are so concerned about the survival of these species. After all, will the planet really be in peril if they end up existing only in zoos? The reality is that the biodiversity concerns of scientists are with the entire, vast array of millions of species from tiny to large that drive ecosystem functions, functions upon which we humans depend in innumerable ways. The other reality is that it usually takes something as a cute as a panda or big as an elephant to get the attention of most people.

System functions are things such as photosynthesis and nutrient cycling which are dependent on bacteria, fungi, algae, plankton at one end and plants, herbivores, and carnivores at the other end. System functions also include physical processes such as rainfall, wind, ocean currents, etc. Both ends of the living component (large species and small species) need to be in balance for the systems to function in a manner that works optimally for humans as well as the organisms that comprise the systems. The “work” that these organisms do that we take advantage of without having to “pay” anything for is referred to as ecosystem services, i.e. the ecological systems and species are providing a service to humans for free. An example would be the breakdown of organic materials in the soil by bacteria and fungi that is needed for plant growth which translates into successful farming. At an even higher level, tropical rainforests are the water pumps that initiate the movement of the atmosphere which determines climate patterns worldwide. Take a look at this video to see what that looks like – Global Atmospheric Circulation Now that is one heck of an ecosystem function! In addition, there are millions of other uses made of species from antibiotics to foods and medicines for everything from blood thinners (saliva from vampire bats) to cancer medicines – some of the latter are made from snake venoms, vampire bat saliva, etc. The list goes on and on.

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