What Causes Biodiversity Loss & How Does It Impact You?

A figure sweeping away many unique animals, adding to further biodiversity loss.

Current rates of biodiversity loss threaten all ecosystems on Earth.

Population declines, genetic diversity losses, and the extinction of species reduces the resilience of our corner of the galaxy as a whole.

Is there anything the average person can do to help protect these beautiful species?

There’s a bit of confusion over what biodiversity is or isn’t and why it’s important, but it’s also one of the main drivers of climate change, and how we react to this issue will define the world future generations inherit.

So what is biodiversity loss, exactly?

What is biodiversity loss?

The loss of biodiversity is a complicated subject, but it can be easily seen by anyone who takes a simple look around themselves or peers into the natural world.

Plastic trash litters our beaches and streams, forests and grasslands are cut down to plant crops and raise animals, and mysterious wild creatures compete with humans for resources – all of these things threaten biodiversity.

A black bear cub sitting next to a trash can after tearing through plastic trash looking for food.

Biodiversity loss is the term used to describe the mass exodus and loss of biological variability in natural ecosystems, the genetic diversity of different species, and the natural systems in place that protect them.

Why does biodiversity matter?

Contrary to common belief, life doesn’t benefit nearly as much from competition as it does from relatively peaceful coexistence that works for all parties involved.

Competition is dangerous and resource-intensive; so instead, evolution often ends up favoring more diverse shapes, behaviors, and imaginative ways to allow organisms to share a space without stepping on each other’s toes.

The more biodiversity in an ecosystem, the more components needed to prop it up – including unique, mysterious animal cultures we’ve only just begun studying.

Given enough time and a healthy variety of conditions, biological niches open up and are filled by different species of animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria – increasing biodiversity throughout an ecosystem.

A hippo relaxing in its natural habitat, surrounded by a few different bird species.
Image by Kandukuru N. via Flickr

Over time, more and more niches appear and are filled by different species, each one playing a supportive role in the biological systems in place that keep things stable and running smoothly.

In other words, the goal of evolution (if you want to think of it that way) is to reach equilibrium amongst all the various forms of life that live near each other.

There’s always going to be surprises and unexpected changes in ecosystems; but with plenty of hands on deck, a diverse ecosystem can afford to lose a few specialist species and the generalists can pick up the slack until it’s stable again.

acorn woodpecker

But this also means that every ecosystem, no matter how diverse, has a breaking point – after which low biodiversity prevents things from running smoothly. Bringing us to our current reality, where we can watch these sensitive boundaries being tested across most of our world’s habitats.

Earth’s climate is changing faster than ecosystems can properly deal with, and this may only get worse as we continue to remove more of the biological buffer zones that protect us.

An example of what biodiversity isn’t

On the black cotton soils of Laikipia National Park in Kenya, one tree species dominates the land.

Acacia drepanolobium, also known as the whistling thorn acacia, dots the landscape as far as the eye can see; in some places extending to the horizon in all directions.

A landscape of whistling thorn acacia trees at dusk, in the Laikipia ecosystem of Kenya.

This single species is one of few trees that grow in this region filled with nutrient-rich soils, which means they play a vital role in the ecosystem.

On each tree lives one of about four Crematogaster ant species, who build their homes and forge insect empires within the bulbous woody swellings that grow around the tree’s thorns.

The ants help deter elephants (the major predator of the tree), and within the tree’s spikes the ants are safe from any birds or mammals that may want to munch on them.

Termites fill in any gaps between the trees, offering nutrient and water recycling services where ant colonies aren’t doing their jobs properly, or where damaged by hungry herbivores.

A close up shot of ants crawling on whistling thorn acacia branches.
Image by Regina Hart via Flickr

From this simple landscape, local people gather valuable charcoal to sell and use for cooking, and their livestock grazes on various species of scrubby grasses that grow around the trees.

While simple, this ecosystem is also a great example of a sustainable system, where even the trees are capable of recovering pretty well from any harvesting or burning.

The acacia trees and their ants are abundant everywhere, yet the region itself is mainly a low-biodiversity ecosystem that happens to provide a number of useful, sustainable services to nearby people and wildlife.

And it’s not an artificial environment; this is a naturally-occurring, stable ecosystem that has been around for a long time. It’s just held together by a select few species, working in harmony with one another in an almost perfectly balanced system.

Turns out, biodiversity isn’t necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

But the biodiversity crisis is still a critically important problem that could change the future of all life on our planet, even if a few select species may be all that’s required for specific ecosystems.

Why is biodiversity important?

The plains of Laikipia may be a healthy, sustainable ecosystem – but there’s more to its long term success than its biological elements.

Abiotic factors like geography, weather, and the local or global climate (or occasional asteroid) all play a role in the stability of an ecosystem.

Landscapes filled with whistling thorn Acacia have been stable as long as the conditions remain optimal, but the low biodiversity in a place like this makes it extremely vulnerable to change.

Giraffes grazing on the canopies of acacia trees in Kenya.
Image by Regina Hart via Flickr

With only a few major organisms holding it all together, removing a single one from this kind of environment would cause it to collapse.

Remove the ants and the trees are wiped out by herbivores, people lose their source of charcoal and their livelihoods, the termites have nothing to eat, and any grasses growing on their mounds are no longer supported by the nutrients termites provide.

Despite its simplicity, this is a very specialized ecosystem – and with specialization comes reduced adaptability.

This is where the importance of biodiversity becomes crystal clear.

What are the main causes of biodiversity loss?

Human industry could easily lead to a million species going extinct within decades, and these threats come from many different directions:

Deforestation is widespread. Cutting down our world’s forest means we lose millions of hectares of important forests annually, and this is the cost of many industries, not just the logging and deforestation itself.

Habitats are being fragmented everywhere. One consequence of forest loss is the splitting apart of habitats and ecosystems, making life for those who live inside very difficult.

Harvester machines driving side-by-side, harvesting a crop of soybeans.

For example, the monoculture farming of palm oil and grazing large herds of cattle on deforested rainforest prevents remaining wildlife from finding one another to diversify their genes.

Humans kill too many animals for food. Outdated and barbaric practices like whaling, alongside massive amounts of overfishing, removes wildlife from our oceans faster than they can replenish. Eating meat is bad for the environment as well for many, and contributes to nearly every environmental issue.

Global emissions threaten sensitive ecosystems. In addition to the general warming and acidification of our oceans, CO2 emissions are absorbed into Earth’s oceans, acidifying the water and making it difficult for planktonic organisms to form their chalky shells. This has led to a rise in coral bleaching events, threatening the entire oceanic food web – which feeds billions of humans as well as wild animals.

Weather and climate patterns are rapidly changing. Changes in our climate due to human industrial activities has led to more extreme weather events, encroaching desertification, and rises in sea levels that can change or destroy previously diverse ecosystems.

If we don’t change trajectory, it’s likely that we could face global ecological collapse, and this may not happen gradually as we start to approach climate tipping points.

You can think of species like bricks in a building; with every species lost, a brick is removed and the building inches closer to collapsing under the strain. For a long time it may remain standing, and may even appear strong from a distance – but if it keeps losing bricks that are never replaced, a sudden collapse is inevitable.

An ecosystem like the one found in the black cotton soils of Laikipia may well be able to provide everything some specific species need to survive, but has little flexibility and could easily topple over from small, unexpected changes.

What’s the current state of biodiversity loss?

While biodiversity isn’t necessarily responsible or even required for all of the ecosystem services we take for granted – things like clean water and air – it’s definitely necessary if we want to guarantee their existence in the future.

In many ways, the biodiversity of species can be considered nature’s immune system. In fact, biodiversity has been demonstrated to inoculate against extinction – and there’s never been a more relevant era of human history.

Currently, we’re entering a sixth mass extinction event, similar to other ecological tragedies of the past.

Only this time, humans are to blame – not asteroids.

Rainforested mountains now turned into plots of agricultural land, fragmenting ecosystems.
Image by Rod Waddington via Flickr

And this is all pretty recent stuff as well, when you consider the scale of animal population loss since 1970:

  • North America has lost a third of its animal populations
  • Latin America and the Caribbean have lost nearly 95%
  • Africa has lost 65%
  • The Asia Pacific region has lost close to 50%
  • Europe and Central Asia lost 25%

And this decline of biodiversity in ecosystems means a lot.

Combined, our planet has seen an overall animal population decline of around 69% – which goes beyond a simple decline, as future generations of animals will also be impacted from drops in genetic diversity.

A graph showing the steep decline of the living planet index worldwide between 1970 and 2018.

Complete extinction for many species is also a possibility, and indeed, it’s suggested that somewhere between 200 and 2000 species are going extinct every year; a rate around 1000 to 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates.

Can we recover from biodiversity loss?

The reason an acacia tree even needs to protect itself from elephants is due to a massive shift in abiotic factors that occurred around 66 million years ago.

What was probably an asteroid crashed into what’s now called the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, probably creating not only a very loud bang but quite a few other issues as well.

The cascade of effects from this probably wiped out all large land vertebrates, 80% of all animals on earth, and all the dominant Cretaceous groups (people will contest the exact mechanisms, but there’s plenty of strong evidence for it).

A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton outside of the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, USA.
Image by Greg Goebel via Flickr

Regardless of how all of this happened exactly, the result was that tiny mammals who were previously kept in check by their tyrannical reptilian overlords were now free to expand into new ecological niches.

These small mammals grew larger and eventually became the giants of today, like elephants.

It may have taken ten million years, but life and the ecosystems that support it did manage to recover from this massive asteroid impact, and this only happened because of the incredible pre-asteroid biodiversity present on our planet.

Flashy and extreme, sure – but asteroid impacts are hard to compare to the most recent reason for mass extinctions on earth: climate change.

How can we improve global biodiversity?

The thing about the natural world that many people tend to ignore is that it has an incredibly remarkable ability to recover, when given the chance.

Just as the survivors of the K-T asteroid did, if we work collectively to stop this rampage of destruction, species and populations of wild plants and animals will rush to fill in the gaps.

You can already see this in action, as protected areas promote biodiversity including within oceanic ecosystems. Even semi-protected marine conservation zones, where fishing is allowed to a certain degree, offer ecosystems a buffer against decreasing biodiversity.

A USDA reforesting crew planting trees, helping a native ecosystem grow back.

In some areas of conservation and sustainability, literally all we need to do is let nature work its magic undisturbed.

There needs to be both an increase in conservation efforts, and a reduction in destructive impacts if any of the goals set in place by various environmental organizations are to be reached.

There are a handful of ways these goals can be reached, many of which involve changes you can make in your everyday life:

Animal agriculture needs to be reduced. Our reliance on animals to provide us with food and other products is a direct driver of unsustainable land management and carbon emissions. Learning how to go vegan or simply just incorporating more plant based foods and activities into your life is an easy way to positively contribute.

Our food systems need to be reorganized in general. Farming animals isn’t the only issue, as sustainable agriculture techniques are underutilized in most areas. Instead, we see water, energy, and fertile soil devoted to things like unsustainable cotton crops, largely grown using insane amounts of harmful pesticides.

Cotton harvesters cruising along, harvesting a crop of thirsty cotton.

Our global food system is considered the main driver of biodiversity loss, as nearly 86% of all species threatened by extinction are in that position due to how we grow our food. If there was ever a time to explore the uses of GMO technology to reduce biodiversity loss, it’s this decade.

Natural lands should be regenerated. Vast amounts of human-assisted natural regeneration of ecosystems all around the globe needs to take place, and in many cases this can even be assisted by using crops that also benefit humans like sustainable bamboo varieties.

Ecosystems need long-term, sustainable protection. Areas that are still doing alright, or that have been regenerated will need to be managed and protected well after the fact in order to guarantee our hard work isn’t wasted. And this is great for us too, as many areas with little development but beautiful natural wonders rely on ecotourism for a source of income, which requires a higher level of safeguarding.

On an individual level, it’s clear that some of these issues are easier to help with than others – the main thing you can do to help curb human biodiversity impacts is to pay more attention to the things you consume.

These species need space to recover, but if they go extinct – there’s no coming back from that.

Despite huge losses in population over recent decades, as long as a species survives, it’s possible for us to come together and ensure the protection of ecosystems that can safeguard biodiversity well into the future.

Final thoughts

Promoting biodiversity is our future guarantee for things like clean water, breathable air, healthy soils, and even protection against weather and climate changes.

For these reasons, finding a way you can make a dent in the overall impact humans have on biodiversity loss becomes more important with each passing day.

How do you feel about biodiversity loss, and what are you doing to stop it?

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