January: The Process and Nature of Science February: Evolution March: Physics and Technology April: Energy Resources May: Sustainability and the Environment June: Ocean and Water July: Astronomy August: Weather and Climate September: Biodiversity and Conservation October: Geosciences and Planet Earth November: Chemistry December: Science and Health Year of Science 2009 home page
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Biodiversity and Conservation

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Celebrate Biodiversity and Conservation

Why should we study biodiversity?

"When voters in Montana ask me why we should save the spotted owl, what should I tell them?"

This was the question posed to renowned biologist Ed Wilson during an early-1990s visit to the office of Montana senator Max Baucus. Wilson, unfazed, shot back, "Tell them, senator, about the rosy periwinkle, a small plant discovered in Madagascar that provided successful treatment for Hodgkin's disease and acute lymphomatic leukemia. Tell them about the obscure Norwegian fungus that yielded cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant now used every day in organ transplants. And ask them how many species of fungi exist in the old stand forests of the Pacific Northwest that we haven't even classified yet, much less learned the benefits of."


Medical advances comprise just one of the many reasons for preserving and studying biodiversity, the quantity and variety of all living organisms. From the tiniest bacteria to elephants to humans, all biodiversity is interconnected in a complex yet fragile network of relationships. The tiniest perturbation to this network can cause its wholesale collapse, which is why we must be responsible and informed citizens of our environment.

Aside from the medical benefits mentioned by Wilson, there's dollars and cents--40% of the global economy is based on biological products and processes. Think about the food on your dinner table; the paper you are writing on; those herbal extracts in your shampoo. Think even more simply--the very air you breathe is recycled and emitted by trees, which in turn absorb the carbon dioxide you exhale. Indeed, our ability to persist and function as a society is entirely dependent on the biodiversity of our planet.

Despite our shrinking world, biodiversity remains a frontier of new discovery. Of a possible 5-30 million species on the planet, only 1.8 are named and described. Who knows what medical cures and new technologies exist in the remaining millions? With more than 12 million specimens deposited in its natural history museums, the University of California, Berkeley dedicates much time and resources to the study of past and present biodiversity, in order to inform our understanding.

Wilson said it best in his book The Diversity of Life, when he implored us to "cherish each species in turn as a world unto itself, worthy of lifetimes of study." Text courtesy of Bradley Balukjian, UC Berkeley, Science@Cal.

Meet Torsten Dikow and comment upon his thoughts on


Torsten's expertise is the taxonomy, phylogeny, and biodiversity of Asiloidea flies (Insecta: Diptera) and his research has focused in particular on assassin- or robber flies (Asilidae) - one of the largest groups of true flies. He joined the Encyclopedia of Life' s Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum after completing his Ph.D. in entomology at Cornell University and the American Museum of Natural History followed by a short postdoc at the same museum. He is originally from Germany and has traveled the world to study and collect flies in habitats ranging from hot deserts to temperate forests and subtropical grasslands to tropical rain-forests.

Read Torsten Dikow's latest blog post

Saving Species

The conservation of biodiversity needs to be one of our top priorities. That doesn't just mean that we need to preserve just the tropical rainforests, which harbor an enormous number of species, but any natural habitat, no matter how small, because the interplay of all species (animals, plants, and microorganisms) is of great importance to the functioning of planet Earth.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN for short, is an important international organization that provides detailed data on the status of globally threatened species in their so called "Red List".

Rhaphiomidas auratus Cazier, 1985 - a closely related
species of the endangered Rhaphiomidas terminatus
abdominalis. Photo by Greg Ballmer.

At the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL, www.eol.org), we show the IUCN conservation status for each species just underneath the species name. For example, the status of Prionailurus viverrinus (Bennett, 1833), otherwise known as the South-east Asian Fishing Cat, is endangered (see details here). Additionally, more detailed conservation status information within different countries is provided in the Conservation tab of an EOL species page. The species page for the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos (Linnaeus, 1758)) explains, for example, where and why this eagle is protected in the US and the UK and that it is extinct in Ireland. It is important to highlight that this species is protected in the US, but globally the populations are healthy and it is listed as "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List. This is because the Golden Eagle occurs in 66 countries in the Northern Hemisphere and is only extinct in Ireland (see details here). Conservation status information is, for the majority of cases, only available for amphibians, birds, mammals, and some plants as these species have been studied much more in the past than insects or fungi. However, more and more scientists working on these underrepresented groups are applying the same rules that are used to assess the conservation status of the chimpanzee to, let's say, flies in order to establish their conservation status. Today, only a single species of fly, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis (Cazier, 1941) from the Los Angeles area, is listed as endangered in the US (see species profile from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service here). There are no fly species listed globally in the IUCN Red List although one beetle and 12 butterfly species have been evaluated from the hundreds of thousands of known insect species. Hopefully, this will change as more scientists study the conservation status of some of the less charismatic species as these are equally important for the health of the planet.

As highlighted in my first post three weeks ago, conservation needs to be targeted at regions and not just focus on a single species. If we preserve a biodiversity hotspot, we will also preserve every species of fungus, plant, bird, insect, worm, and mammal that lives within the confines of the hotspot. But even if we conserve an entire area, there are still threats to the wildlife posed by unscrupulous people who try to make money by illegally trading wildlife. The main international organization that proposes lists of species or populations that are protected through a ban on international trade is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

In many instances particular species are protected, but in other situations, whole groups like primates, cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), sea turtles, parrots, corals, cacti, and orchids are protected. You might have seen the displays in big international airports that showcase items like alligator skin purses, snake skin belts, ivory artifacts, and turtle shells that have been confiscated by customs or Fish & Wildlife personnel. In the majority of cases, these species are part of the CITES list and any trade, even by a tourist who bought the piece as a souvenir, is unlawful. Currently, 892 species (597 animal species and 295 plant species) are listed in the highest category by CITES, which means that they "are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance for scientific research." Other organizations working to protect animals from illegal trade are TRAFFIC and the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT). Sadly, people go to astounding lengths to move wildlife illegally across borders like this man smuggling parrot eggs into Australia.

I can't stress the importance of protecting high biodiversity regions enough. Every one of us can take part in the conservation of flora and fauna by not buying souvenirs that are made from endangered species. Furthermore, there are hundreds of international and local conservation NGOs and interest groups with which we can work to protect our planet, its biodiversity and its natural resources so that humanity can enjoy them for millennia to come.

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