What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity – ‘biological’ (living) and ‘diversity’ – is the variety and variability of all life on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria and microorganisms, and humans. The concept was introduced in 1980 by renowned conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy (BA ‘63; Ph.D. ‘71), who is now the University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department at George Mason University. Lovejoy explains that biodiversity gives life on Earth an unimaginable variety.
“A single animal or single plant is more complex than anything else in the universe,” Lovejoy says. “If you looked at one chromosome from the cell of a mouse, you would have more information than all editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica combined.”
Os Schmitz, the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at the Yale School of the Environment, finds it helpful to think of biodiversity like an orchestra. “You’ve got a variety of different instruments,” Schmitz says. “You’ve got string instruments, woodwinds, brass, and within each of those groups, you also have different shapes and sizes of instruments that function together to create a wonderful harmony. That’s the kind of diversity that we’re interested in with species on Earth. There are groups of species we call carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, or microbes, and then within those groups are also varieties of different species with different sizes and different abilities.”
What are the benefits of biodiversity?
Lovejoy explains that this “collective variety in nature” is integral to the heathy functioning of ecosystems. “All of these different individual species interact with one another and contribute to natural systems,” Lovejoy says. “Even something as domestic as a backyard lawn is composed of many, many species doing a lot of different jobs. Every time you look around, there is some sort of ecosystem service going on.”
Ecosystem services are the environmental, economic, social, cultural and spiritual benefits that are made available due to complex species interactions on Earth. We as humans rely on these benefits every single day. Biodiversity is responsible for the production of oxygen, the filtration of natural drinking water, the fertility of our soil, the pollination of plants that allow us to produce crops, the protection of coastlines from erosion, and more. Lovejoy estimates that these services provide trillions of dollars of benefits to the human economy.