Biodiversity Frequently Asked Questions

 

This page presents a few major questions related to biodiversity that people have asked us over the years. The list is not exhaustive and much more information can be found following the links that we provide on this page.

 

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the shortened form of two words "biological" and "diversity." It refers to all the variety of life that can be found on Earth (plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms) as well as to the communities that they form and the habitats in which they live.

The Convention on Biological Diversity gives a formal definition of  biodiversity in its article 2: "biological diversity means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems". 

Biodiversity is not only the sum of all ecosystems, species and genetic material. Rather, it represents the variability within and among them. It can be distinguished from the expression "biological resources", which refer to the tangible components of ecosystems. Biological resources are real entities (a particular species of bird, a wheat variety growing in a field, oak wood, etc.) while biological diversity is rather an attribute of life (the variety of bird species, the genetic variability of wheat around the world, forest types, etc.).

Biological diversity is often understood at three levels:

  • species diversity refers to the variety of different species (plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms) such as palm trees, elephants or bacteria;

  • genetic diversity corresponds to the variety of genes contained in plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms. It occurs within a species as well as between species. For example, poodles, German shepherds and golden retrievers are all dogs, but they all look different;

  • ecosystem diversity refers to all the different habitats - or places - that exist, like tropical or temperate forests, hot and cold deserts, wetlands, rivers, mountains, coral reefs, etc. Each ecosystem corresponds to a series of complex relationships between biotic (living) components such as plants and animals and abiotic (non-living) components which include sunlight, air, water, minerals and nutrients.

See also:

 

How much biodiversity is there?

Estimates of the total number of species range from 7 to 100 million, with a probably good estimate being about 13 to 15 million species. Up to this day, only about 1.75 million living species have been identified and described scientifically. Many new species continue to be discovered each year, most of them invertebrates. During the nineties, the number of newly described species averaged 13.000 per year.

The table below shows approximate numbers of species in major groups (UNEP, Global Biodiversity Assessment, 1995):

Group No. of described species Estimated total no. of species
Viruses

4 000

400 000

Bacteria

4 000

1 000 000

Fungi

72 000

1 500 000

Protozoa

40 000

200 000

Algae

40 000

400 000

Plants

270 000

320 000

Nematodes

25 000

400 000

Crustaceans

40 000

150 000

Arachnids

75 000

750 000

Insects

950 000

8 000 000

Mollusks

70 000

200 000

Vertebrates

45 000

50 000

Others

115 000

250 000

Totals

1 750 000

13 620 000

 

For more information, see also:

 

Why is biodiversity important?

The natural environment provides the basic conditions without which humans could not survive. This seems intuitive enough: we need to breathe, eat, drink and shelter ourselves and we get all this from the natural world.

Ecological importance:

  • trees provide habitat and food for birds, insects, other plants and animals, fungi, and micro-organisms;
  • insects, bats, birds, and other animals serve as pollinators;
  • parasites and predators act as natural population controls;
  • various organisms, such as earthworms and bacteria, are responsible for recycling organic materials and maintaining the productivity of soils;
  • green plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replenish it with oxygen. Forests, for example, are particularly important "sinks" for the absorption of carbon dioxide and thus are key factors in reducing global climate change;
  • wetlands serve as sponges to reduce the impacts of floods and to cleanse streams by filtering sediments, nutrients, and contaminants from inflowing waters.

The interaction of all these natural processes forms a complex web of life. If any part of this web suffers or breaks downs, the future of the other parts is threatened. Humans are in many cases degrading and destroying the ability of biological diversity to perform the services mentioned above.

Economical importance:

  • food: species are hunted (e.g. antelopes, birds), fished (e.g. cod, tuna fish), and gathered (e.g. fruits, berries, mushrooms), as well as cultivated for agriculture (e.g. wheat, corn, rice, vegetables) and aquaculture (e.g. salmons, mussels). It is interesting to know that, of the about 80,000 available comestible plants, humans use less than 30 to satisfy 90% of our planet's alimentary needs;
  • fuel: timber and coal are only two examples of natural resources used to produce energy;
  • shelter and warmth: timber and other forest products (e.g. oak, beech, pine) are used as building materials and for shelter. Fibers such as wool and cotton are used to make clothes;
  • medicines: both traditional medicines and processed drugs are obtained from biodiversity: penicillin is produced by a mould, codeine is obtained from poppies, digitalis from foxglove and quinine from the bark of cinchona trees;
  • other goods such as paper and pencils come from raw materials provided by the Earth's diversity.

Indirect services:

  • clean and drinkable water: only a small amount - about 1% - of the water on our planet is usable directly. The rest is either salty (97%) or frozen (2%). Forests around the world filter our usable water again and again, constantly replenishing the water we use for drinking, bathing, and growing crops;
  • air to breathe: plants around the world take carbon dioxide out of the air and put oxygen into it - oxygen that almost all creatures need to breathe;
  • fertile soils: micro-organisms recycle the soil's organic matter and maintain its fertility;
  • pollination: insect, bird and bat species carry pollen from one plant to another (or from one part of a plant to another), thus fertilising fruit crops and flowers.

Cultural importance:

  • plants and animals are often used as symbols, for example in flags, paintings, sculptures, photographs, stamps, songs and legends.
  • finally, biodiversity is also beautiful: it is a pleasure to see and smell flowers in a field, to listen to birds singing, etc.

For more information, see also:

 

Is biodiversity threatened, and why?

It is often the loss of big mammal species that catches most our attention: we are deeply touched of the disappearance of charismatic animals such as pandas, tigers or elephants, but we are less aware that many less conspicuous organisms are disappearing fast.

Today, species and habitats are becoming extinct or disappearing at top speed. Why? The main reasons are listed below:

  • habitat loss and destruction is usually a direct result of human activity and population growth. It is a driving force in the loss of species, populations, and ecosystems: when people cut down forests, dig mines, build cities, or make roads, they destroy habitats. When the habitats become smaller, less food and shelter are available. As a result, species living in these habitats compete with each other and with humans for limited resources. Since their populations are so small, they have fewer mates with whom to have offspring, diminishing the genetic diversity of their populations. Smaller habitats are like islands, isolated from each other, and species have greater difficulties migrating from one to another, as less suitable pathways are available;
  • the introduction of alien (exotic or non-native) species can disrupt entire ecosystems and have a major impact on populations of native plants or animals. The invaders can affect native species by eating them, infecting them, competing with them, or mating with them. Invasion can happen through many different ways: seeds catch on people's clothes, rats hitchhike on ships, marine species are transported around the world through ballast water from ships and insects can be introduced with the international trade for food or timber. The numbers of species introduced to areas in which they are not native are expected to increase as the scale of international trade, transportation and tourism continues to grow;
  • human-generated pollution and contamination (e.g. acid rain, oil spills, human waste, nuclear waste, over use of pesticides) can affect all levels of biodiversity;

  • population growth: over 6 billion people live on Earth. More and more resources are used for food, water, medicine, clothes, shelter and fuel. This leaves fewer resources for the Earth's species and habitats;

  • over-exploitation (over-hunting, over-fishing or over-collecting) of a species or population can lead to its disappearance. Many of the world's natural resources are being used by humans faster than they can replace themselves. Commercial fish such as cod are over harvested, while species like dolphins and sea turtles often die in fishing nets. People buy wildlife and wildlife products to use as pets, medicines, gourmet foods or decorative objects;
  • global climate change will alter environmental conditions. As humans burn more fossil fuels like oil and coal for energy, more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide - or CO2 - acts like a greenhouse, letting sunlight and heat into the lower atmosphere, but not letting heat back out. Other gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, released to the atmosphere by human activities, also contribute to global warming. As a result, average yearly temperatures on Earth have risen. Changes in the climate will modify the ecosystems in which many species - including humans - live. Some species and populations may be lost if they are unable to adapt to the new weather conditions or relocate to adequate habitats while other species - such as certain diseases and pests - may flourish and expand their ranges.

For more information, see also:

 

What is the situation in Belgium?

The geographical and geological characteristics of Belgium, together with long-standing human impact in land use, resulted in an amazing diversity of habitats for such a small territory, man of which are of European importance. No less than 58 of them are listed in the EU habitats directive, which includes 198 entries.

A recent compilation of known estimations of species biodiversity (Biodiversity in Belgium, 2003) records about 36.300 species of animals, plants and fungi in Belgium. Knowledge of the fauna and flora of our neighbouring countries indicates that there may be from 16.000 to 19.000 additional species yet to be recorded. Indeed, there is a high possibility that species found in neighbouring countries, in habitats also frequently found in Belgium, could be present in our country as well. Taking this estimation into account, there could be around 55.000 species in Belgium. An underlying implication is that ... about one third of all species in our country have not been recorded yet.

Our knowledge of the different groups is unbalanced. The best known are the vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers, ferns, horsetails, quillworts and clubmosses), vertebrates (lampreys, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals), carabids (ground beetles), butterflies and dragon- and damselflies. They are often used to underpin and justify conservation measures and many speces are well-known indicators. Yet they represent less than 4% of the species in Belgium. Expanding our knowledge of the remaining 96% of organisms is urgently required if we are to improve, refind and optimise Belgian conservation policies and actions.

Detailed monitoring and thorough comparisons of old collection and observation data with more recent ones show that many species in Belgium are in decline or even have disappeared. In Flanders, at least 7% of formely recorded speces are extinct, 20% are endangered and 27% are vulnerable to near threatened; only 43% are considered safe or at low risk. A similar situation exists in Wallonia, as, depending on the taxonomic groups, between 40% and 83% of the species show an obvious population decline. In the Brussels Capital Region, 187 higher plant species (out of 580), some 15 to 20 bird species (out of 90) and half the amphibians have disappeared. The Belgian section of the North Sea suffers from the decline of fish and crustacean populations, notably in commercial species.

You will find more information in the book "Biodiversity in Belgium" published in 2003.

Other websites answering questions on biodiversity


Complementary references

  • E.O Wilson. Biodiversity, 1988. Online version - Free access !

  • Global Biodiversity Outlook (in preparation), CBD Secretariat, 2001.

  • Sustaining Life on Earth - How the Convention on Biological Diversity promotes nature and human well-being, UNEP and CBD Secretariat, 2000.

  • UNEP's Global Biodiversity Assessment - Summary for Policy-Makers, UNEP and Cambridge University Press, 1995.

 

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Last updated  20-12-2004


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