BY: Tasneem Johnson-Dollie
Biological diversity sounds like an important concept, but do you know what it actually means? Let’s learn more by taking a look at what International Day for Biological Diversity is all about.
Getting to know International Day for Biological Diversity
International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated on 22 May each year.
It’s a day that’s been set aside by the United Nations (UN) to celebrate biologically diverse ecosystems all around the world.
And, because we’re living in a time when the rise and fall of species in different ecosystems has taken centre stage, it’s also about highlighting challenges to biological diversity worldwide.
But, what is biological diversity and why is it important? Let’s get a better look by leaping into the definition of diversity in biology.
What is biological diversity?
Biological diversity means having lots of living things around, right? Or is it about there being lots of different types of animals and plants? Or having lots of plants and animals in one place at the same time?
Understanding what’s meant by the term “biologically diverse” starts with wrapping your head around the definition of diversity in biology.
The most widely accepted definition comes from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. It describes biological diversity as, “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”
This magnificent mouthful emphasises three main points:
- Biological diversity is about having a variety of living organisms in existence.
- The concept of biological diversity can apply to all the different ecosystems on Earth – including terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments.
- Measuring biological diversity means comparing the variety of plants and animals within species, between species and within ecosystems.
So, this definition of diversity in biology answers “yes” to all the questions we started out with.
Yes, biological diversity is about having lots of living things around. And yes, it’s also about there being lots of different types of animals and plants in existence. And in addition to these, yes, biological diversity is having different environments bursting with large numbers of living things.
Each year, International Day for Biological Diversity looks to build on the world’s understanding of what biological diversity really means and why it matters.
Because biological diversity is a term with a massive meaning, it helps to take a look at some real-life examples to get a better understanding of it.
The World Conservation Monitoring Centre (a branch of the UN) identified 17 megadiverse countries. These destinations are home to the most biologically diverse biomes on Earth, and they paint a clearer picture of what biologically diverse ecosystems look like.
What are the most biologically diverse biomes on Earth?
Biomes are wild spaces that set the scene for specific communities of plants and animals to coexist.
Aquatic, desert, forest, grassland and tundra environments make up the five major biomes on Earth.
Through collaboration with local and international organisations, the UN was able to gather an extensive amount of data on biomes across the world.
This led to them pinpointing 17 of the world’s 195 countries as being the most biologically diverse. These locations are known as megadiverse countries and include places like Australia, Brazil, Madagascar, and South Africa, where we offer top-rated field guide training in the heart of the African bushveld.
The other megadiverse countries are:
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Papua New Guinea
- South Africa
- United States of America
Together, these megadiverse countries account for only 10% of the world’s land surface area, but are home to almost 70% of Earth’s terrestrial life forms. This is a biological feat of epic proportions, even before we consider the marine and freshwater plants and animals that call these countries home!
Most megadiverse countries are made up of a mix of aquatic, forest and grassland biomes where thousands of different types of animals and plants live.
Let’s take a look at the challenges facing these biologically diverse biomes today.
What’s affecting the world’s most biologically diverse biomes today?
Studies have looked at changes in biologically diverse ecosystems over the years. This research has highlighted some of the biggest challenges to biological diversity today. They are:
- human activity – like poaching, overfishing and the overdevelopment of natural environments
- climate change – changes in temperature and precipitation affect the development and survival of many different types of animals and plants
- invasive species – when non-indigenous plants and animals are introduced into an ecosystem they can affect the well-being of endemic plants and animals.
The ten years between 2011 and 2021 were designated as the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity. This set a deadline for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to develop solutions to the challenges faced by plants and animals globally.
A whole decade of planning – isn’t that a bit much? Well, not when we consider how biological diversity has been affected over the last century:
- It’s estimated that 30,000 species go extinct every year – which amounts to three species every hour.
- Human beings make up 0.01% of life forms on Earth, yet human activity is responsible for the extinction of 83% of mammals and half of the planet’s plants.
- The average number of species in terrestrial ecosystems has dropped by around 20% since 1900.
- Global warming has significantly affected the survival of more than 40% of amphibian species and almost 33% of reef-forming coral species.
- In the Amazon alone, an 80% increase in fires from 2018 to 2019 has affected 7,000 square miles of the rainforest – one of the world’s most biologically diverse biomes.
- Around one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction today.
Right now, the rate of species extinction is at an all time high. And, with every year that passes, the world’s biological diversity dips even lower.
So, why is biological diversity important?
Why is biological diversity important?
Earth’s different types of animals and plants are as important to the planet’s well-being as the sun that keeps us warm, and the water that supports all life on Earth.
Plants and animals are key parts of ecosystems – which provide us with food, water and other natural resources, like wood, fertile soil, medicines and oil. And, the life forms found in these ecosystems are part of the natural processes that allow for these resources to exist in the first place.
Many ecosystems also produce tons of oxygen that living organisms need to survive. They also act as carbon sinks – natural environments that absorb large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. So, they play a big role in moderating the effects of global warming and climate change.
And, many plants and animals are a key source of food and employment for the human population – which is growing by the millions every year.
With less biological diversity, the ability of ecosystems to meet the world’s demand for food, water, oxygen and other natural resources will drop. And, these resources may not be available to us in the future.
This can have a big impact on our livelihoods, world economies and disease management in the years to come.
So, what can we do about it?
How to make an impact on International Day for Biological Diversity?
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity gives us annual updates on what’s happening in biologically diverse ecosystems around the world. This means that every year on International Day for Biological Diversity, you can see what’s being done to address diversity loss, and how it’s adding to a positive global impact.
But, you don’t have to play a passive role in this annual event.
By following your passion for nature and working towards a career in conservation, you can make a meaningful impact in conservation activities worldwide.
You could become a Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) accredited field guide, a park ranger, or a conservationist involved in environmental awareness education in local or global communities.
Any work that adds to the aims of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will make a meaningful impact in slowing extinction rates and safeguarding global biological diversity.
Sign up for Bushwise Field Guides online field guiding course, and gain the knowledge and insight you need to make an impact on International Day for Biological Diversity.