The Benefits of Biodiversity
Biodiversity is defined as the variety of species who comprise a particular ecosystem or ecological niche. It is something we take for granted, a silent structure standing in the background of everyday life. Yet, three to thirty million species depend on biodiversity’s implications, particularly since the effects of global warming and climate change have become glaringly clear. Ethically and culturally, some of us consider diversity on a daily basis. However, in an age of rapid development and resource exploitation, it has become increasingly necessary to ponder environmental diversity as well.
The Tewksbury Land Trust’s Lance Preserve off of Fox Hill Road offers a comprehensive study on how a vast collection of species can create a thriving habitat. Meandering around its two fields and mature forest provides a glimpse of just how many creatures and plants have settled across the preserve’s 37 acres. Spiky-leaved thistle blooming with purple flowers alongside milkweed dripping with seeds and white fluff grow sporadically throughout. Rye and timothy grass protect nesting birds from predators while wild blackberries and wine berries provide ample nourishment for deer. Black walnut trees surrounded by their large, green fallen seeds and black oak trees laden with acorns are fixtures in the forest. Ash trees flourish and a single sycamore tree grows by the river. Invasive species include autumn olive covered in clusters of small red berries, crown vetch swathed in dainty purple flowers during the warm months, and Virginia creeper. Cooper’s hawks, identified by their blue-gray color and reddish bars on the chest, fly alongside red-shouldered hawks, who boast distinctive red chests with black and white checkered wings. Keen observation may reveal the mottled brown and white barred owl, native to North America and known for its distinctive hoot. Smaller birds such as eastern wood-pewees and wood thrushes soar above the fields. Patient eyes may also spot box turtles, squirrels, and salamanders.
A wide range of species allows ecosystems to recover quickly from disturbances such as hurricanes and floods. If a particular hawk species is forced to move or becomes extinct during a catastrophe, the environment with ten different hawks is more apt to maintain its original balance of resources than the habitat with only one hawk variation. When a species suddenly migrates or perishes, all the other species must adapt to the loss of a predator or prey. Therefore, the presence of a similar creature makes an ecological recovery much easier. At the same time, natural disturbances control brush growth and allow new species to move in. Sadly, human disturbances, which include clear cutting, pollution, and habitat fragmentation, have become much more common than the natural version and tend to be a lot more destructive.
Biodiversity is an essential aspect of ecosystem services, or the benefits people receive from wildlife. These services are divided into four categories: instrumental, regulating, cultural, and supporting. The products derived from ecosystems are known as instrumental services, including everything from drinking water, food, and medicinal plants to timber, natural gas, and oil. Regulating services are those that include a positive natural process. Bees pollinate flowers so fruit can grow. Soil purifies water as it trickles downward. Roots prevent soil from washing away during heavy rainfall. Bacteria break down waste. Plants remove CO2 from the air. All of these mechanisms combine to create a sustainable, resilient habitat. Cultural services do not include physical systems, but rather provide the basis for ideas. A community might be inspired by the sound of a lion’s roar and imitate the noise in their songs. An architect might be inspired by a bird’s nest. The more diverse an area is, the more ideas and knowledge a community has access to. Supporting services are the fundamental aspects of an ecosystem such as the water cycle, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.
The plethora of produce and materials found across our planet would not be available without biodiversity; supermarket produce shelves would literally be bare if there was only one plant species. Incredible vaccines and medications have been derived from plants and the study of genetics in animals has allowed for medical innovations. Numerous species provide the potential for life saving pharmaceuticals. Meanwhile, genetic diversity ensures that disease does not ravage an entire ecosystem since different species have developed unique combatants. High genetic biodiversity reduces the probability that offspring will receive a genetic mutation and increases their chances of survival. When a habitat has low genetic diversity, populations are prone to inbreeding and thus accidentally promote negative genes.
Unfortunately, Earth is in the midst of a sixth great extinction. Over 5,000 species become extinct each year, a rate of decline that is 100 to 1,000 times greater than at any other point in human history. This is, in fact, the first great extinction since humans have been on Earth. Centuries of forward progress and billowing smokestacks have caught up to our planet. Human actions have undoubtedly been a contributing factor to, if not a catalyst of, this mass destruction. Habitat demolition and climate change have forced species into alternative ecosystems where food and predators may be unknown factors. These plants and animals cannot adapt to their new environments because evolution simply can’t keep up. Fortunately, organizations such as the Tewksbury Land Trust have taken definite steps towards ensuring that biodiversity will be maintained by preserving ecologically valuable property. Lance Preserve, which was officially protected in 2007, would have been the site of nine houses had the land trust and their partners not stepped in. Biodiversity is essential to the well-being of ecosystems as well as humans. Enjoy a walk around the meadows, relax under the shade of forest trees, and don’t forget that an environmentally conscious lifestyle can save lives and support biodiversity.