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Daily RC Article 107

Unraveling the Layers of Biodiversity: Nature's Resilient Web

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…E O Wilson, the father of biodiversity, described biodiversity as an assemblage that ‘has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady.’ We tend to think of biodiversity as a landscape of teeming jungles and coral reefs, its destruction manifesting as forest clearance and species extinction. However, […] biodiversity is [also] what maintains the resilience and flexibility of the environment as a whole, so that life can weather the inevitable ‘storms’.

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The global Convention on Biological Diversity defines its subject as variability among living organisms at three different levels: within species, between species, and of ecosystems. The first diversity, ‘within species’, is at the level of the gene. A species is made up of individuals. For example, the 10,000 or so species of ant are estimated to comprise a staggering 1015 individuals. With the rare exception of twins, each of these individuals will have their own unique combination of genes. If we destroy half of the ants in each species, we will still have 10,000 kinds of ant, but we’ll have lost 50 per cent of each species’ genetic diversity… A wide genetic diversity gives us more options in the face of rapid environmental change...

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The second layer is diversity ‘between species’. This is the definition of biodiversity with which we are most familiar – the fantastic assortment of animals, plants and micro-organisms in the world…

Lastly, we have ‘diversity of ecosystems’. Species interact with each other and with the sunlight, air, soil and water to form ecosystems. From the arctic tundra to tropical rainforest, from estuaries to the midnight zones of the deep sea, the Earth houses a wealth of ecosystems... An ecosystem might be as large as the Great Barrier Reef or as small as the community of sponges, algae and worms hosted on a spider crab’s shell…

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The species within an ecosystem compete for resources such as light and food – but they also rely on each other. [C]oral reefs provide shelter for 25 per cent of our marine life. Bacteria recycle dead matter into nitrates, the only compounds from which plants can build proteins. Ecosystems provide ‘services’ that support life both within and beyond the ecosystem…

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One intriguing natural phenomenon is that, in any given ecosystem, a few species will be very numerous, but most will be quite scarce. That is, common species are rare, and rare species are common. Just as genetic diversity provides species with resilience to environmental change, species diversity increases the resilience of ecosystems… [So], an ecosystem’s diversity might reflect what’s happened in its environmental past and indicate its potential to adapt to future change.

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The irony is that the word ‘biodiversity’ has currency mostly because humans are in the process of destroying what it refers to… The philosopher Bryan Norton likened the Earth to a patient whose survival is dependent on a life-support machine. Hospital staff enter and announce that, in order to increase the hospital’s revenue, they will be selling a few components of the machine. ‘It’s got so many wires and screws, it can’t possibly need them all,’ they blithely assure the patient. Would you take that gamble?

This article highlights the multifaceted nature of biodiversity, encompassing genetic diversity within species, diversity between species, and the diversity of ecosystems. It emphasizes biodiversity's crucial role in maintaining resilience and adaptability in the face of environmental changes. The piece draws attention to the irony of humanity's destruction of biodiversity despite its essential role in supporting life and ecosystems.
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