Biodiversity Jenga

True to form, I missed an important day while being busy with this annoying thing called every day life. Last week was World Biodiversity Day. However, such an important topic deserves to be talked about more than on just one day!

What exactly is biodiversity? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Bio = life, and diversity = rich depth of differences. Biodiversity is a simple term for the complex web of all living things in an area. And that area can be defined as large or as small as you the observer wants. I’ve written quite a bit about different animals and conservation, but not so much specifically on why these animals and conservation matter beyond the obvious moral reasons. Taking morality out of the equation, there remains quite a lot to care about. There are two big interrelated reasons to why it matters – consistency and resiliency.

Before I get into those, let’s talk about how biodiversity occurs first. All life on earth is uniquely adapted to its environment. Everything has a special niche for the weather conditions and climate it can tolerate, what foods it eats, how it gets water, what altitude it lives at, what amount of light or soil nutrients it needs and so on. All living things compete for resources. Those that have survived have adapted to fill different narrow niches to reduce competing with other living things. When an area is rich in resources, it can thus support a large diversity of life. When it has limited resources, it can only support a small diversity of life. Think of a coral reef compared to the bottom of the deep ocean. There is life in both places, but the smaller number of available resources means the bottom of the ocean has a much smaller biodiversity than a coral reef.

Now – back to why biodiversity is important and not just merely a nice thing to have. Think of an ecosystem like a giant game Jenga. When an it is healthy, it is a full set of blocks stacked up, with hundreds if not thousands of individual species all linked together to make the stack. Remove one or two blocks (say a disease wipes out a species and then an avalanche wipes out another), then the rest of the blocks can hold the stack steady until new species adapt into the newly made holes. The area stays much the same – the biodiversity keeps it consistent. Remove too many blocks though, and the area can become extremely unstable. When this is the case and a catastrophic event takes place, there are not enough blocks in place to hold an ecosystem steady. Instead, the stack collapses and all the blocks are wiped out. There were not enough species to perform all the functions the ecosystem needed, so everything died off and collapsed.

In more extreme cases, biodiversity acts as a buffer to change. When an area experiences a major disturbance due to some catastrophic event that wipes out more than one or two species (climate change, hurricanes, drought, flooding, fire, volcano eruption, oil spill, etc.), how quickly it recovers is directly connected to how healthy the environment was before the event. Aka, how quickly the Jenga stack is rebuilt after it is knocked completely over. This is resiliency. A healthy environment with high biodiversity will recover much more quickly – because it has so many living organisms that there are enough left to fill all the niches and roles in the environment. A non-healthy environment that was weakened before the event will take much longer. There may not be enough living organisms left to make a complete ecosystem.

That’s why people like me continually beat the drums about conservation and endangered species (more on that topic in my previous posts, Fiercely Threatened and Large and in Charge on the Endangered List). It’s not merely sad when something goes extinct, it’s not only morally good to take care of the earth – we are frantically trying to save all the individual blocks in our Earth’s Jenga stack. We have lost so many species that many ecosystems are threatened with collapsing. If we are not careful, our severely weakened stack might tip over. And no matter what your feelings on conservation are – I’m willing to bet you don’t like barren wastelands. So maybe if you haven’t already, you could take a look at your daily habitats and start making those changes you didn’t think were important before.

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