Environment and Biodiversity

Biodiversity is something that surrounds us all. It is the variety of life on earth that relies on other organisms and the physical environment. Today, scientists study biodiversity and how organisms interact with their environment to gain an understanding of how life evolves.

Environment and Biodiversity Environment and Biodiversity

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Contents
Table of contents

    Environment and biodiversity definitions

    The word biodiversity is derived from the phrase biological diversity. It refers to the variability among living organisms - within species, between species and within ecosystems. Scientists only started using the term at the start of the 20th century. Below is a standard definition:

    Biodiversity: the variety of living organisms in a particular habitat.

    Environment and Biodiversity Photograph showing the coral reef biodiversity under water StudySmarterFig. 1 – Coral reefs are biodiverse habitats; they have a large variety of living organisms. Source: unsplash.com

    So what about the environment?

    Environment: The environment refers to an area and the conditions in which an organism lives.

    Difference between environment and biodiversity

    Often the words ‘environment’, ‘ecosystem’ and ‘surroundings’ are used interchangeably, however, they are slightly different.

    Environment: an area and the conditions in which an organism lives.

    Ecosystem: An ecosystem (or ecological system) consists of all the organisms and the physical environment, including abiotic and biotic conditions with which they interact.

    Surroundings: Surroundings refer to what surrounds a population.

    Environment

    Ecosystem

    The surroundings where organisms live.

    The community where the biotic and abiotic components interact with each other.

    The environment changes as an organism moves from one place to another.

    Dependent on essential life processes such as photosynthesis.

    Just a place in time.

    Provides interaction between the elements

    Physical components.

    Physical and biological components.

    Can be macro or micro.

    Can be aquatic or terrestrial.

    It provides the condition to live.

    It provides the relationship between components in which organisms live.

    Biotic: Living elements of an ecosystem, such as plants and animals.

    Abiotic: Non-living elements of an ecosystem, such as climate, temperature, water, and soil type.

    Different types of biodiversity

    There are different levels of biodiversity (species and ecosystem diversity). These are detailed below.

    Species biodiversity refers to the number of different species within an ecosystem as well as the relative abundance of each one of those species. There are two types of species diversity: within a species and between species. Intraspecies diversity refers to diversity among individuals in the same species and interspecies diversity refers to diversity between different species.

    intra = within the same species

    Inter = between different species

    Our planet has many different ecosystems within it all of which have different species and habitats. For example, there are forests, mountains, deserts, etc. The variation and diversity among them is known as ecosystem biodiversity. An ecosystem consists of all the organisms and the physical environment, including abiotic and biotic conditions with which they interact.

    Interaction of ecosystems

    All ecosystems are interconnected and this interaction can occur between organisms and themselves as well as between organisms and their environment. Biodiversity is also important because ecosystems interact with each other. Living organisms regulate:

    Until around 2.4 billion years ago, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. The abundance of life on earth is due to a drastic increase in oxygen levels. The main reason for higher oxygen levels is the fact that plants use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then release oxygen.

    Biogeochemical cycles are the way in which elements are used and recycled in the biosphere. A way that living organisms interact with biogeochemical cycles is through resource consumption.

    Some organisms provide a service to other organisms while others are negatively affected by other organisms.

    Soil nutrient content is maintained by processes such as nitrogen fixation and vegetation cover helps to prevent the erosion of soil.

    Genetic diversity is the total variety of genes in a species and how they are expressed.

    Why is biodiversity important?

    Biodiversity maintains the stability of ecosystems. Each species is of value to the ecosystem and different species depend on each other. Every organism has a role to play. If one species disappears then the environment and food chains for all other species can change. Biodiversity is also important for humans who use ecosystems as resources for foods, medicines, and tourism.

    Food chains and food webs

    A food chain portrays the feeding relationships between specific organisms. Arrows show the transfer of energy in stages called trophic levels. Food chains always start with a producer. A primary consumer then eats the producer. The primary consumer is eaten by a secondary consumer, which can be potentially eaten by a tertiary consumer. Animals consumed are predators and those hunted and eaten are prey. The consumer at the top of the food chain is called an apex predator and isn’t typically eaten by anything else.

    Food webs are made up of many food chains which are interlinked. This is a better representation of how the organisms interact in the real world because most populations have more than one food source. They may prey on more than one organism at the trophic level.

    Food chains show a flow of energy between organisms whereas food webs show how all food chains in an ecosystem interact.

    Table 1. Biodiversity services and their examples.

    Type of service

    Example

    Provisioning services

    Biodiversity and ecosystems provide us with resources. These include:

    • Timber from wood

    • Plant and animal fibres

    • Fuel

    • Oil

    • Commercial cultivation

    • New medicines

    • Genetic resources that we can use in genetic engineering.

    Regulating services

    Biodiversity plays a large part in regulating life on earth.

    • Trees and plants regulate air quality by removing pollutants from the atmosphere. For example, trees on a field edge may shield a farmer's crops from pesticides drifting in from nearby fields.

    • Regulation of global climate through storage of greenhouse gases. For example, trees and plants lock carbon dioxide in their tissues as they grow and naturally take it in.

    • Ecosystems act as buffers against natural disasters. For example, the interior forests and upland buffers can protect interior forest areas and reduce disturbances to breeding and nesting areas.

    • Ecosystems decompose waste and filter effluents. For example, sewage pumped into rivers is decomposed by microorganisms.

    • Vegetation prevents soil erosion and ensures soil fertility through natural processes such as nitrogen fixation.

    • Insects are pollinators and are essential for the production of plants and trees.

    • Water flow regulation. For example, interception, transpiration, evaporation, evapotranspiration and infiltration of water by forests is really important for preventing flooding and erosion.

    Culturing services

    Cultural services are the non-material benefits people get from ecosystems. They include aesthetic inspiration, tourism, recreation, and the more spiritual side of nature and the environment.

    Supporting services

    Supporting services is the way that the ecosystem provides spaces for plants and animals. It includes the habitats ecosystem provides and the maintenance of genetic diversity as different species can thrive within it. Some habitats are called ‘biodiversity hotspots’ as they have high numbers of species that make them more genetically diverse than other habitats.

    Biomimetics

    The term biomimetics stems from the ancient Greek words bios and mimesis, meaning “imitate”. It is a concept that draws inspiration from nature to solve complex human problems. Some uses are:

    New genes to improve crop genetics characteristics may be discovered. This can be seen in the genetically modified crops we have today. For example, sugarcane with a higher sucrose content.

    Genetically modified crops (GM crops): Crops in which the DNA has been modified using genetic engineering methods.

    Materials such as airbags, velcro, and body armour have been created that mimic the properties of some natural materials.

    Environment and Biodiversity Biomimicry of Burr to make velcro StudySmarterFig. 4 – Biomimicry of Burr to make velcro. Source: unsplash.com

    Velcro was developed by the Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1941 after he was inspired by the small hooks on burr needles to create velcro.

    Lotus flowers have water-repelling properties which have been used to develop self-cleaning glass.

    Researchers recently developed an innovative new bioplastic based on the qualities of the lotus leaf. It is able to repel liquid and dirt, as well as break down rapidly when buried in the soil. The reason lotus leaves don’t get dirty is due to their water-repellent surface which is composed of tiny pillars below a waxy layer. Any fluid that lands on the leaf remains a droplet and rolls off, sweeping up any dirt as it does so. To mimic this, synthetically plastic made of starch and cellulosic nanoparticles and imprinted with a pattern that mimicked the tiny columns of a lotus leaf was produced. It was then coated with a silicon-based organic polymer - PDMS. The new plastic is naturally compostable, while most other bioplastics require industrial processes to break down. It is really innovative as plastic waste is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today so this cost-effective and durable material has the potential to get us one step closer to fighting plastic waste.

    Termite mounds are above ground which creates convection currents. This concept has been used in architecture.

    The splayed wingtip feathers of soaring birds reduce wind turbulence so aircraft wing designs have been copied to help increase fuel efficiency.

    Physiological research

    We can study physiology through other organisms such as:

    • Squids

    Studying squids has enabled us to gain more insight into heart, kidney, and Alzheimer's disease as well as strokes and cancer. This is because their nerve cells are bigger than human nerve cells making them easier to study.

    • Dolphins and bats

    Both these organisms use high-frequency sound to source their food. The study of this mechanism has enabled the development of new and better ultrasound scanners.

    • Purple sea urchin embryos

    Female purple sea urchins produce extremely large quantities of eggs. They can be used when testing if medicines cause abnormal embryo development in humans.

    • Marine sponges

    They produce proteins that prevent rejection after transplant surgeries.

    Distribution of biodiversity

    Biodiversity is everywhere - from unicellular organisms to entire ecosystems. So what are some of the patterns we can observe?

    Spatial patterns of biodiversity

    This refers to the arrangement of individuals in space as well as their geographical relationships.

    The distribution of biodiversity depends on:

    • Climate

    • Geography

    • Soil

    • Human activities

    We can observe a lateral gradient in species diversity because there are fewer species in the higher latitudes and more species in the lower latitudes. Tropical areas tend towards higher biodiversity (due to higher temperatures and more fertile ground) and polar regions towards lower biodiversity. Areas with more human populations have less biodiversity as they tend to be more built up and urbanised. The exponential growth of the human population creates a greater demand for the earth’s natural resources such as food, water and materials.

    Temporal patterns of biodiversity

    Temporal biodiversity refers to the seasonal changes in biodiversity. Researchers study temporal patterns of biodiversity in order to better estimate the extinction of species. Despite this, long-term records are required for this and there are often lags observed in terms of ecological response to changes in ecosystems making predictions hard.

    For example, Cameia National Par, Angola is a seasonally flooded savanna. The species composition and land use by living beings are controlled by seasonal floods, precipitation patterns and fires. This is because different organisms are adapted to different conditions and habitats.

    Threats to biodiversity

    Most of the threats to biodiversity stem from human activity.

    Table 2. Threats to biodiversity.

    Threat

    Reason

    Farming and Agriculture

    Results in habitat loss of a variety of species as the land is changed to accommodate for farming and agriculture.

    Development

    Residential and commercial developments threaten the species that interact with and live in the area being used.

    Habitat Destruction

    Habitat destruction = biodiversity destruction. This is because when the place that an organism lives is destroyed, it can no longer survive in that environment as it is not adapted to living and breeding in those conditions. This means that there are less species and therefore less biodiversity in the ecosystem. The main causes of this are human activities, deforestation, global warming, and overpopulation.

    Climate change and natural disasters

    Disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches etc can totally wipe out the biodiversity of a region.

    Climate change is causing an increase in these events.

    Transportation

    Building the infrastructure for transportation can separate populations leading to speciation and destroying habitats. Moreover, the pollution caused by transportation leads to climate change which is leading to the destruction of habitats.

    Pollution

    Untreated sewage, fertilisers and pesticides, industrial chemicals, soil erosion, waste, acid rain, and vehicle emissions all pollute the environment.

    Hunting

    Excessive hunting for meat and leather destroys biodiversity as it eliminates species from ecosystems.

    Environment and biodiversity conservation

    Scientists have developed many ways to conserve biodiversity and stop its decline. Here are some of them.

    Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)

    The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) commenced on the 16th of July 2000. It is a major piece of environmental legislation in Australia and provides the legal means to protect areas of national environmental significance.

    The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

    This is the primary legislation, which protects animals, plants and habitats in the UK.

    The act contains four parts, which cover:

    • Part 1: Wildlife

    • Part 2: Nature conservation, the countryside and National Parks.

    • Part 3: Public rights of way.

    • Part 4: Miscellaneous provisions of the act.

    The IUCN - International Union for Conservation of Nature

    The IUCN helps to identify species that should be prioritised for conservation. Its specific roles are to coordinate label data on biodiversity conservation, increase understanding and deploy nature-based solutions.

    It categorises organisms as:

    • extinct (EX)

    • extinct in the wild (EW)

    • critically endangered (CR)

    • endangered (EN),

    • vulnerable (VU)

    • near threatened (NT)

    • least concern (LC)

    Specific characteristics that may identify a species as one that should be prioritised include:

    • Flagship species

    • Keystone species

    • Endemic species

    • High level of threat to habitat

    • Dispersed population

    • Evolutionary distinct species

    The roles of the IUCN:

    • Coordinating global data on biodiversity conservation

    • Increasing understanding of the importance of biodiversity

    • Deploying nature-based solutions to global challenges in climate, food and sustainable

    • development.

    EDGE species (Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered) - species threatened by extinction and diverged from other taxa long ago so they have greater genetic differences.

    Endemic species - Species found within a single area, especially if the population is small.

    Keystone species - Species whose survival is important for the survival of many other species.

    Flagship species - A flagship species is a species from the plant or animal kingdom that is used to represent a certain environmental issue or cause. Eg polar bears used to raise awareness of global warming.

    There are also:

    EU CFP - common fisheries policy of the european union

    This aims to make fishing and agriculture environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. Some ways that this is implemented is through:

    • Catch quotas (to limit the amount of fish certain vessels can catch)

    • Net mesh regulations (prevents smaller, younger fish being caught so they can breed)

    • Limits on fishing

    • Bans on discarding of unwanted fish

    ITTO - international tropical timber organisation

    This aims to encourage sustainable management of forests.

    In the UK:

    SSI's - sites of special scientific interest

    NNR's - national nature reserves

    In the EU:

    SAC's - special areas of conservation

    SPA's - special protection areas (protection of birds).

    LNR'S - local nature reserves

    MNR'S - marine nature reserves.

    ramsar sites - protection of wetlands

    AONB's - areas of outstanding natural beauty

    NP's - national parks

    There are also environmental stewardship schemes that landowners and farmers can be part of.

    ELS - entry level stewardship

    (open to all farmers and landowners, simple and effective land management).

    OELS - organic entry level stewardship

    HLS - higher level stewardship (targeted environmental management).

    Some environmental stewardship scheme examples include:

    • Beetle banks (a strip planted within a crop field, that provides habitats for species that prey on pests).

    • Buffer strips (reduce water pollution)

    • Field margins (allow nesting).

    • Hedges (provide habitats for many species).

    Environment and Biodiversity - Key takeaways

    • Biodiversity is the variety of living organisms in an environment.

    • The environment is the area and conditions in which an organism lives.

    • An ecosystem consists of all the organisms and the physical environment, including abiotic and biotic conditions with which they interact.

    • There are two types of biodiversity: Species Diversity and Ecosystem diversity.

    • Biodiversity is important as without it, ecosystem services would be limited.

    • Many laws, schemes and regulations are in use in order to conserve biodiversity.


    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Coral Reef (https://unsplash.com/photos/v8Un2Roo1Ak) by Shaun Low (https://unsplash.com/@breadboyshaun) licensed by CC0 1.0 Universal (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)
    2. Fig. 4 - Burr (https://unsplash.com/photos/33hWhs61l0o) by Milos Lopusina (https://unsplash.com/@miloslopusina) licensed by CC0 1.0 Universal (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Environment and Biodiversity

    How does the environment affect biodiversity?

    Many factors affect biodiversity including:

    • Human population growth

    • Habitat destruction

    • Climate change

    • Pollution

    • Farming and agriculture

    What is the difference between environment and biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is the variety of living organisms in a particular habitat whereas the environment is the area and conditions under which an organism lives.

    How does biodiversity function in different environments?

    We can observe a lateral gradient in species diversity because there are fewer species in the higher latitudes and more species in the lower latitudes. Tropical areas tend towards higher biodiversity and polar regions towards lower biodiversity. Areas with more human populations have less biodiversity.

    What is biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is the variety of living organisms in a particular habitat.

    Why is biodiversity important to the environment?

    Biodiversity is also important because ecosystems interact with each other.

    Living organism regulate:

    • Atmospheric composition

    • Biogeochemical cycles 

    • Interspecies relationships 

    • Soil maintenance 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    A plagioclimax is caused by human activity - true or false?

    True or false - Data deficient is a category of threat?

    How many plant species are used worldwide for modern medicine?

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