The Importance of Biodiversity

Maintaining the awe-inspiring abundance of species on Earth could be the benchmark for humanity’s success.

| June/July 2011

Earth is home to 80,000 species of snails and slugs. About 5,000 species of frogs have been recorded. Ten thousand species of birds decorate the skies. Our planet provides habitats for about 3,000 species of snakes, at least 25,000 different kinds of fish, about 2,300 rodents, and innumerable forms of insects, bacteria, fungi and viruses. I say “innumerable” because, although we’ve named 100,000 types of fungi and documented more than a million species of insects, we’re conscious that we’ve identified only a fraction of the diverse species out there. Experts estimate there are between 2 and 30 million species of insects on Earth. There are so many kinds of insects in so many out-of-the-way places that scientists can only take a wild stab at the range of their diversity.

We have named about 600,000 species of beetles, for heaven’s sake.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a tiny frog I’d never seen before in a wet spot behind my shed. I was thrilled. Last year, my wife and I spotted a merlin, a small species of falcon, hunting around our blackberry patch. I watched it through a telescope from our living room. The discovery made me feel ecstatic.

Sometimes I get a little drunk on natural diversity. A good sort of drunk. I’ve been known to crawl around a pasture on my belly counting plant species. Not for the sake of science — just to know the number. My wife and I like to pick out how many different bird songs we can hear on summer mornings.

Some find my enthusiasm silly, but I have good company in my intoxication. Thomas Jefferson expounded joyously on the sacred multiplicity of creation. So have renowned authors and thinkers such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Thich Nhat Hanh, Terry Tempest Williams, William Wordsworth and many more.

As the floodwaters described in the Old Testament receded, the Judeo-Christian God promised never again to punish the planet, telling Noah, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the Earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” His covenant was not with humanity alone, but, explicitly, “with every living thing.” Buddhism, Hinduism and many other religions also give specific, divine instruction on the importance of preserving diverse species. Almost everyone, it seems, recognizes the value.

wave working at home
8/12/2011 7:19:40 PM

It's so heartening to be reminded that we don't need scientists, politicians, economists or clergy to tell us that biodiversity is important. All of us sense deep down that inclusion of the whole variety of unique species is loving, healthy and beneficial - biodiversity as a yardstick of our effective care of our environment is truly an inspiring idea!

7/5/2011 3:46:35 PM

The world is an ever changing place and that's good.

7/5/2011 10:07:27 AM

It is incumbent upon each of us to do everything in our power to mitigate this human induced mass extinction event. As we destroy the chains of life the possibility of a human induced global ecosystem collapse becomes greater with each passing day. Nothing causes me greater sadness than our destruction of the natural world. What does this say about the basic nature of mankind?

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