Our natural world is a complex system. Only by understanding how species relate to each other and their environment can we hope to properly protect wildlife and preserve their habitat for the future.
What is Biodiversity?
Simply put, biodiversity or “biological diversity” is the variety of life on our planet. It can be studied on many levels. At the highest level, you can look at all the species on the entire planet. On a much smaller scale, you can study biodiversity within a single ecosystem (for example, a pond) or a neighborhood park. Identifying and understanding the relationships between all living things on Earth is one of the greatest challenges in science.
Researchers have estimated that there are between 3 and 30 million species on Earth, with a few studies predicting that there may be over 100 million species. Currently, we have identified only 1.7 million species, so the vast majority of species on the planet are not yet known!
Let’s look at the species biodiversity within a local pond. At first glance, we can identify different plants, including cattails and water lilies. If we wait a while, we might be able to spot a garter snake, a bullfrog or maybe a red-winged blackbird. With a closer look, you can see invertebrates and worms under leaves, on grasses and in the pond water. A microscope would reveal another world teeming with even smaller organisms.
Why Should We Care about Biodiversity?
Biodiversity is extremely important to people and to the health of our natural ecosystems. Here are just some of the reasons:
- Biodiversity allows us to live healthy and happy lives. It provides us with a wide array of foods, fibers and other materials and it supports the economy.
- Without a diversity of pollinators, plants, and soils, we would have little variety in our diets.
- Most medical discoveries to cure diseases and lengthen life spans were made because of research into plant and animal biology and genetics. Every time a species goes extinct or genetic diversity is lost, we lose an opportunity to find out if it could have provided a new vaccine or drug.
- Biodiversity is an important part of the ecological services that make life livable on Earth. They include everything from cleaning water and absorbing chemicals, which wetlands do, to providing oxygen for us to breathe—one of the many things that plants do for people.
- Biodiversity allows ecosystems to adjust to disturbances such as extreme fires and floods. In a forest with 20 species of reptiles, if one becomes extinct the others will likely adapt to fill the role left vacant. But if the forest had only one reptile species, there can be no adaptation.
- Genetic diversity prevents diseases and helps species adjust to changes in their environment.
- Diversity enriches our lives simply by existing. There are few things as beautiful, wonderful and inspiring as the diversity of life on Earth.
Threats to Biodiversity
Extinction is a natural part of life on Earth. In the history of the planet, most of the species that have ever existed are now extinct. Species go extinct because of natural shifts in the environment that take place over long periods of time, such as ice ages and atmospheric changes. But today, species are going extinct at an accelerated and dangerous rate, because of non-natural environmental changes caused by human activities. Some of these activities have direct effects on species and ecosystems, such as habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and the introduction of non-native species.
All of these threats have put a serious strain on the diversity of life on Earth. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), globally about one third of all known species are threatened with extinction. If we do not work to reduce these threats to biodiversity, there will be direct and dire consequences to the environment and to our own health and livelihood.
What Can Schools Do about Biodiversity?
School grounds provide an ideal opportunity to introduce students to the natural environment and biodiversity. They offer a hands-on laboratory for outdoor education that can complement classroom-based activities. You and your students can play a part in protecting local biodiversity by creating a Schoolyard Habitat that provides native wildlife with food, shelter, water and a place to raise young—the essential elements of habitat. You can also work within your local community to create and certify backyard and community habitats through the National Wildlife Federation.
Students can also become citizen scientists. By observing plants and animals on the school grounds and in the neighborhood, students can begin to better understand what exists in their community and what needs to be protected. Programs such as NWF’s Wildlife Watch and Project Noah are great ways for students to record their observations and to share their wildlife stories online. You may also find that a local environmental organization is running a BioBlitz in your region or state. A BioBlitz is an excellent opportunity for students to take part in counting species in a specific place at a specific time, and the information collected is then used by groups such as state Fish & Wildlife Agencies or Land Trusts.
Have you developed a great way to investigate and support biodiversity at your school? If so, why not share it with everyone on our Facebook page?