The Biodiversity Crisis

Loss of Biodiversity

Human activity is the driving force behind the current biodiversity crisis, which is causing great species loss in a short time period.

Learning Objectives

Explain the biodiversity crisis

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Biodiversity is the variety of species present in the biosphere; the main goal of conservationists is to preserve biodiversity.
  • An example of biodiversity loss was the extinction of over 200 species of cichlids in Lake Victoria; this was caused by the introduction of the Nile Perch as well as increased agriculture and fishing.
  • Unlike the five previous mass extinctions, the current one is a result of detrimental human activities.
  • Current human-caused biodiversity loss is the result activities such as habitat destruction, the introduction of exotic invasive species, and the over-harvesting of species.

Key Terms

  • biodiversity: the diversity (number and variety of species) of plant and animal life within a region
  • adaptive radiation: the diversification of species into separate forms that each adapt to occupy a specific environmental niche
  • invasive species: any species that has been introduced to an environment where it is not native and has since become a nuisance through rapid spread and increase in numbers, often to the detriment of native species
  • extinction: disappearance of a species from earth; local extinction is the disappearance of a species from a region

The Biodiversity Crisis

Traditionally, ecologists have measured biodiversity, a general term for the variety of species present in the biosphere, by taking into account both the number of species and their commonness. Biodiversity can be estimated at a number of levels of organization of living things. These estimation indexes, which came from information theory, are most useful as a first step in quantifying biodiversity between and within ecosystems, yet they are less useful when the main concern among conservation biologists is simply the loss of biodiversity. However, biologists recognize that measures of biodiversity, in terms of species diversity, may help focus efforts to preserve the biologically or technologically important elements of biodiversity.

Cichlids in Lake Victoria

The Lake Victoria cichlids provide an example through which we can begin to understand biodiversity. The biologists studying cichlids in the 1980s discovered hundreds of cichlid species representing a variety of specializations to particular habitat types and specific feeding strategies: eating plankton floating in the water, scraping and then eating algae from rocks, eating insect larvae from the bottom, and eating the eggs of other species of cichlid. The cichlids of Lake Victoria are the product of an adaptive radiation. An adaptive radiation is a rapid (less than three million years in the case of the Lake Victoria cichlids) branching through speciation of a phylogenetic tree into many closely-related species; typically, the species “radiate” into different habitats and niches. The Galápagos finches are an example of a modest adaptive radiation with 15 species. The cichlids of Lake Victoria are an example of a spectacular adaptive radiation that includes about 500 species.

At the time biologists were making this discovery, some species began to quickly disappear. A culprit in these declines was a species of large fish that was introduced to Lake Victoria by fisheries to feed the people living around the lake. The Nile perch was introduced in 1963, but was not a problem until the 1980s when its population began to surge by consuming cichlids, driving species after species to the point of extinction (the disappearance of a species). In fact, there were several factors that played a role in the extinction of perhaps 200 cichlid species in Lake Victoria. These factors included not only the Nile perch, but also the declining lake water quality due to agriculture and land clearing on the shores of Lake Victoria, and increased fishing pressure. Scientists had not even cataloged all of the species present, so many were lost that they were never named. The diversity is now a shadow of what it once was.

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Lake Victoria and biodiversity loss: Lake Victoria in Africa, shown in this satellite image, was the site of one of the most extraordinary evolutionary findings on the planet, as well as a casualty of devastating biodiversity loss.

Causes of Biodiversity

The cichlids of Lake Victoria are a thumbnail sketch of contemporary rapid species loss caused by human activity occurring all over earth. Extinction, a natural process of macroevolution, occurs at the rate of about one out of 1 million species becoming extinct per year. The fossil record reveals that there have been five periods of mass extinction in history with much higher rates of species loss. The rate of species loss today is comparable to those periods of mass extinction. However, there is a major difference between the previous mass extinctions and the current extinction we are experiencing: human activity. Specifically, three human activities have a major impact: destruction of habitat, introduction of exotic invasive species, and over-harvesting. Predictions of species loss within the next century, a tiny amount of time on geological timescales, range from 10 percent to 50 percent. The five previous extinctions on this scale were caused by cataclysmic events that changed the course of the history of life in each instance. Earth is now in one of those times.

Types of Biodiversity

Genetic diversity, ecosystem diversity, and human-derived diversity are measures of biodiversity that currently define life on earth.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate among the types of biodiversity

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A genus with a high variety of species will have more genetic diversity; the most genetically-diverse species will have the greatest potential for evolution and preservation.
  • The loss of ecosystem diversity results in the loss of interactions between species, unique features of co- adaptation, and biological productivity.
  • Human-generated species diversity has decreased due to migration, market forces, and agriculture.
  • Humans have only been able to estimate the number of species that inhabit earth; this estimate accounts for about 20 percent of predicted species on the planet.
  • Humans have only been able to estimate the number of species that inhabit Earth; this estimate only accounts for 20 percent of predicted species on the planet.

Key Terms

  • genetic diversity: variety of genes in a species or other taxonomic group or ecosystem; can refer to allelic diversity or genome-wide diversity
  • ecosystem diversity: variety of ecosystems in a biosphere or the variety of species and ecological processes that occur in different physical settings
  • chemical diversity: variety of metabolic compounds in an ecosystem

Types of Biodiversity

Scientists generally accept that the term biodiversity describes the number and kinds of species in a location or on the planet. Species can be difficult to define, but most biologists still feel comfortable with the concept and are able to identify and count eukaryotic species in most contexts. Biologists have also identified alternate measures of biodiversity, some of which are important for planning how to preserve biodiversity.

Genetic diversity is one of those alternate concepts. Genetic diversity or variation is the raw material for adaptation in a species. A species’ future potential for adaptation depends on the genetic diversity held in the genomes of the individuals in populations that make up the species. The same is true for higher taxonomic categories. A genus with very different types of species will have more genetic diversity than a genus with species that look alike and have similar ecologies. If there were a choice between one of these genera of species being preserved, the one with the greatest potential for subsequent evolution is the most genetically-diverse one. It would be ideal not to have to make such choices, but, increasingly, this may be the norm.

Many genes code for proteins, which in turn carry out the metabolic processes that keep organisms alive and reproducing. Genetic diversity can be measured as chemical diversity in that different species produce a variety of chemicals in their cells, both the proteins as well as the products and by-products of metabolism. This chemical diversity has potential benefit for humans as a source of pharmaceuticals, so it provides one way to measure diversity that is important to human health and welfare.

Humans have generated diversity in domestic animals, plants, and fungi. This diversity is also suffering losses because of migration, market forces, and increasing globalism in agriculture, especially in heavily-populated regions such as China, India, and Japan. The human population directly depends on this diversity as a stable food source; its decline is troubling to biologists and agricultural scientists.

It is also useful to define ecosystem diversity: the number of different ecosystems on the planet or in a given geographic area. Whole ecosystems can disappear even if some of the species might survive by adapting to other ecosystems. The loss of an ecosystem means the loss of interactions between species, the loss of unique features of co-adaptation, and the loss of biological productivity that an ecosystem is able to create. An example of a largely-extinct ecosystem in North America is the prairie ecosystem. Prairies once spanned central North America from the boreal forest in northern Canada down into Mexico. Now, they have mostly disappeared, replaced by crop fields, pasture lands, and suburban sprawl. Many of the species survive, but the hugely-productive ecosystem that was responsible for creating the most productive agricultural soils is now gone. As a consequence, soils are disappearing or must be maintained at greater expense.

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Ecosystem diversity: The variety of ecosystems on earth, from (a) coral reef to (b) prairie, enables a great diversity of species to exist.

Current Species Diversity

Despite considerable effort, knowledge of the species that inhabit the planet is limited. A recent estimate suggests that the number of identified eukaryote species, about 1.5 million species, account for less than 20 percent of the total number of eukaryote species present on the planet (8.7 million species, by one estimate). Estimates of numbers of prokaryotic species are largely guesses, but biologists agree that science has only begun to catalog their diversity. Even with what is known, there is no central repository of names or samples of the described species; therefore, there is no way to be sure that 1.5 million is an accurate number. It is a best guess based on the opinions of experts in different taxonomic groups. Given that earth is losing species at an accelerating pace, science knows little about what is being lost.

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Estimates of species diversity: Scientists have only been able to account for less than 20 percent of eukaryotic species that live on the planet. This table depicts the estimates based on taxonomic group.

There are various initiatives to catalog described species in accessible ways; the internet is facilitating that effort. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that at the current rate of species description, which according to the State of Observed Species Report is 17,000 to 20,000 new species per year, it will take close to 500 years to finish describing life on this planet.

Naming and counting species may seem an unimportant pursuit given the other needs of humanity, but it is not as simple as counting. Describing species is a complex process by which biologists determine an organism’s unique characteristics and whether or not that organism belongs to any other described species. It allows biologists to find and recognize the species after the initial discovery, which allows them to follow up on questions about its biology. In addition, the unique characteristics of each species make it potentially valuable to humans or other species on which humans depend. Understanding these characteristics is the value of finding and naming species.

Biodiversity Change through Geological Time

Biodiversity has been affected by five mass extinction periods, which greatly influenced speciation and extinction rates.

Learning Objectives

Describe how biodiversity has changed through geological time as a result of mass extinctions

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Fossil records have been instrumental in differentiating between five periods that appear to show sudden and dramatic losses in biodiversity.
  • Although there have been smaller periods of extinction, the five mass extinction periods demonstrate a continuous series of large extinction events.
  • The Ordovician-Silurian extinction event was caused by glaciation followed by warming; it led to the extinction of 85 percent of marine species.
  • The late Devonian extinction affected only marine species; the end- Permian extinction, the largest in history, may have been caused by volcanic activity, leading to a global-warming type event.
  • The Triassic–Jurassic extinction event may have been caused by climate change, asteroid impact, or volcanic eruptions; however, the main cause is still unclear.
  • The end- Cretaceous extinction event, in which the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred, is believed to have been caused by the impact of a large asteroid.

Key Terms

  • macroevolution: large-scale patterns or processes in the history of life, including the origins of novel organism designs, evolutionary trends, adaptive radiations and extinctions
  • theropod: any large, bipedal dinosaur, of the suborder Theropoda, from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods
  • anoxic: suffering from a reduced supply of oxygen

Biodiversity Change through Geological Time

The number of species on the planet, or in any geographical area, is the result of an equilibrium of two evolutionary processes that are ongoing: speciation and extinction. Both are natural “birth” and “death” processes of macroevolution. When speciation rates begin to outstrip extinction rates, the number of species will increase; likewise, the number of species will decrease when extinction rates begin to overtake speciation rates. Throughout earth’s history, these two processes have fluctuated, sometimes leading to dramatic changes in the number of species on earth.

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Fossil record: Extinction occurrences, as reflected in the fossil record, have fluctuated throughout earth’s history. Sudden and dramatic losses of biodiversity, called mass extinctions, have occurred five times.

Paleontologists have identified five strata in the fossil record that appear to show sudden and dramatic losses in biodiversity known as mass extinctions. There are many lesser, yet still dramatic, extinction events, but the five mass extinctions have attracted the most research. An argument can be made that the five mass extinctions are only the five most extreme events in a continuous series of large extinction events throughout the Phanerozoic (since 542 million years ago). In most cases, the hypothesized causes are still controversial.

The Five Mass Extinctions

The fossil record of the mass extinctions was the basis for defining periods of geological history, so they typically occur at the transition point between geological periods. The transition in fossils from one period to another reflects the dramatic loss of species and the gradual origin of new species.

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Five mass extinctions: The transitions between the five main mass extinctions can be seen in the rock strata. The table shows the time that elapsed between each period.

The Ordovician-Silurian extinction event is the first-recorded mass extinction and the second largest. During this period, about 85 percent of marine species (few species lived outside the oceans) became extinct. The main hypothesis for its cause was a period of glaciation followed by warming. These two extinction events, cooling and warming, were separated by about 1 million years; the climate changes affected temperatures and sea levels. Some researchers have suggested that a gamma-ray burst caused by a nearby supernova is a possible cause of the Ordovician-Silurian extinction. The gamma-ray burst would have stripped away the earth’s ozone layer, causing intense ultraviolet radiation from the sun. It may account for climate changes observed at the time.

The late Devonian extinction may have occurred over a relatively long period of time. Its causes are poorly-understood and it appears to have have affected only marine species.

The end-Permian extinction was the largest in the history of life. Estimates predict that 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all terrestrial species were lost.The causes for this mass extinction are not clear, but the leading suspect is extended and widespread volcanic activity that led to a runaway global-warming event. The oceans became largely anoxic, suffocating marine life. Terrestrial tetrapod diversity took 30 million years to recover after the end-Permian extinction. The Permian extinction dramatically altered earth’s biodiversity composition and the course of evolution.

The causes of the Triassic–Jurassic extinction event are not clear. Hypotheses of climate change, asteroid impact, and volcanic eruptions have been argued. The extinction event occurred just before the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea; although, recent scholarship suggests that the extinctions may have occurred more gradually throughout the Triassic.

The causes of the end-Cretaceous extinction event are the ones that are best understood. It was during this extinction event, about 65 million years ago, that the dinosaurs, the dominant vertebrate group for millions of years, disappeared from the planet (with the exception of a theropod clade that gave rise to birds). Indeed, every land animal that weighed more then 25 kg became extinct. The cause of this extinction is now understood to be the result of a cataclysmic impact of a large meteorite or asteroid off the coast of what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. This hypothesis, proposed first in 1980, was a radical explanation based on a sharp spike in the levels of iridium (which rains down from space in meteors at a fairly constant rate, but is otherwise absent on earth’s surface) at the rock stratum that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary marked the disappearance of the dinosaurs in fossils, as well as many other taxa. The researchers who discovered the iridium spike interpreted it as a rapid influx of iridium from space to the atmosphere (in the form of a large asteroid), rather than a slowing in the deposition of sediments during that period. It was a radical explanation, but the report of an appropriately aged and sized impact crater in 1991 made the hypothesis more credible. Now, an abundance of geological evidence supports the hypothesis. Recovery times for biodiversity after the end-Cretaceous extinction were shorter, in geological time, than for the end-Permian extinction: on the order of 10 million years.

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K-Pg mass extinction: In 1980, Luis and Walter Alvarez, Frank Asaro, and Helen Michels discovered, across the world, a spike in the concentration of iridium within the sedimentary layer at the K–Pg boundary. These researchers hypothesized that this iridium spike was caused by an asteroid impact that resulted in the K–Pg mass extinction. In the photo, the iridium layer is the light band.

The Pleistocene Extinction

Biodiversity loss, especially the disappearance of megafauna, during the Pleistocene Extinction has been linked to the arrival of humans.

Learning Objectives

Describe the biodiversity loss associated with the Pleistocene extinction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Pleistocene extinction in North America appears to have happened 10,000–12,000 years ago; this is several thousand years after the arrival of humans, who may have contributed to the extinction through hunting.
  • Regions that experienced relatively-recent human arrivals show patterns of dramatic extinctions of megafauna hundreds to thousands of years after humans arrived; the same patterns are not observed in Eurasia and Africa as they did not experience a relatively-recent arrival of humans.
  • To date, over-hunting by humans is one probable factor for the extinction of large mammals in the Pleistocene period.

Key Terms

  • Pleistocene: of a geologic epoch within the Neogene period from about 2.6 million to 11,000 years ago; marked by the evolution of humans and the extinction of the large mammals
  • megafauna: the large animals of a given region or time, considered as a group

The Pleistocene Extinction

The Pleistocene Extinction is one of the lesser extinctions and a relatively-recent one. It is well known that the North American, and to some degree Eurasian, megafauna disappeared toward the end of the last glaciation period. The extinction appears to have happened in a relatively-restricted time period between 10,000–12,000 years ago. In North America, the losses were quite dramatic and included the woolly mammoths (last dated about 4,000 years ago in an isolated population), mastodons, giant beavers, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and the North American camel, to name just a few. The possibility that the rapid extinction of these large animals was caused by over-hunting was first suggested in the 1900s; research into this hypothesis continues today. It seems probable that over-hunting was a factor in extinctions in many regions of the world.

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Giant ground sloth: Giant ground sloths, relatives of the living South American tree sloths, lived across much of North America. The giant sloths disappeared, along with the mammoths, mastodons, and many other large animals, at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.

In general, the timing of the Pleistocene extinctions correlated with the arrival of humans and not with climate -change events, which is the main competing hypothesis for these extinctions. The extinctions began in Australia about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, 10,000 to 20,000 years after the arrival of humans in the area. A marsupial lion, a giant one-ton wombat, and several giant kangaroo species disappeared. In North America, the extinctions of almost all of the large mammals occurred 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, several thousand years after the first evidence of humans in North America. All that are left are the smaller mammals such as bears, elk, moose, and cougars. Finally, on many remote oceanic islands, the extinctions of many species occurred with the coincidence of human arrivals. Not all of the islands had large animals, but when there were large animals, they were lost. Madagascar was colonized about 2,000 years ago; the large mammals (prosimians) that lived there became extinct. Eurasia and Africa do not show this pattern, but they also did not experience a recent arrival of humans. Humans arrived in Eurasia hundreds of thousands to over one million years ago, after the origin of the species in Africa. This topic remains an area of active research and hypothesizing. It seems clear that even if climate played a role, human hunting was an additional factor in the extinctions.

Present-Time Extinctions

Human activities probably caused the Holocene mass extinctions; many methods have been employed to estimate these extinction rates.

Learning Objectives

Describe the biodiversity loss during the Holocene extinction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The dodo was one of the first-known examples of a species that went extinct (in the 1600s) during the Holocene period.
  • Steller’s sea cows, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, Japanese sea lions, and Caribbean monk seals are examples of species that went extinct from the 1700s-1900s.
  • Major reasons for species extinctions during the Holocene period are due to overhunting, overfishing, and other human-related activities.
  • Extinction rates can be estimated by comparing extinction events since the 1500s, but this method may underestimate the actual extinction rate value.
  • Extinction rates can be estimated by observing species-area relationships and correlating species loss with habitat loss; however, this method may lead to overestimation.

Key Terms

  • species-area relationship: relationship between area surveyed and number of species encountered; typically measured by incrementally increasing the area of a survey and determining the cumulative numbers of species
  • Holocene: of a geologic epoch within the Neogene period from about 11,000 years ago to the present
  • extinction rate: number of species becoming extinct over time, sometimes defined as extinctions per million species–years to make numbers manageable (E/MSY)

Present-Time Extinctions

The sixth, or Holocene, mass extinction appears to have begun earlier than previously believed and is mostly due to the activities of Homo sapiens. Since the beginning of the Holocene period, there have been numerous recent extinctions of individual species that are recorded in human writings. Most of these coincide with the expansion of the European colonies in the 1500s.

One of the earlier and popularly-known examples of extinction in this period is the dodo bird. The dodo bird lived in the forests of Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, but became extinct around 1662. It was hunted for its meat by sailors as it was easy prey because the dodo, which did not evolve with humans, would approach people without fear. Introduced pigs, rats, and dogs, brought to the island by European ships, also killed dodo young and eggs.

Another example, Steller’s sea cows, became extinct in 1768.The sea cow, first discovered by Europeans in 1741, was hunted for meat and oil. The last of the species was killed in 1768, which amounts to 27 years between the species’ first contact with Europeans and its extinction. In addition, the last living passenger pigeon died in a zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1914. This species was hunted and suffered from habitat loss through the clearing of forests for farmland. Furthermore, in 1918, the last living Carolina parakeet died in captivity. This species, once common in the eastern United States, was a victim of habitat loss and hunting as well. Adding to the extinction list, the Japanese sea lion, which inhabited a broad area around Japan and the coast of Korea, became extinct in the 1950s due to overfishing. The Caribbean monk seal, found in the Caribbean Sea, was driven to extinction through hunting by 1952.

These are only a few of the recorded extinctions in the past 500 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps a list of extinct and endangered species called the Red List. The list is not complete, but it describes 380 extinct species of vertebrates after 1500 AD, 86 of which were made extinct by over-hunting or overfishing.

Estimates of Present-Time Extinction Rates

Estimates of extinction rates are hampered by the fact that most extinctions are probably happening without observation since there are many organisms that are of less interest to humans and many that are undescribed.

The background extinction rate is estimated to be about one per million species per year (E/MSY). For example, assuming there are about ten million species in existence, the expectation is that ten species would become extinct each year.

One contemporary extinction rate estimate uses the extinctions in the written record since the year 1500. For birds alone, this method yields an estimate of 26 E/MSY. However, this value may be underestimated for three reasons. First, many species would not have been described until much later in the time period, so their loss would have gone unnoticed. Secondly, the number of recently-extinct species is increasing because extinct species now are being described from skeletal remains. Lastly, some species are probably already extinct even though conservationists are reluctant to name them as such. Taking these factors into account raises the estimated extinction rate closer to 100 E/MSY. The predicted rate by the end of the century is 1500 E/MSY.

A second approach to estimating present-day extinction rates is to correlate species loss with habitat loss by measuring forest-area loss and understanding species-area relationships. The species-area relationship is the rate at which new species are seen when the area surveyed is increased. Studies have shown that the number of species present increases as the size of the island increases. This phenomenon has also been shown to hold true in other habitats as well. Turning this relationship around, if the habitat area is reduced, the number of species living there will also decline. Estimates of extinction rates based on habitat loss and species-area relationships have suggested that with about 90 percent habitat loss an expected 50 percent of species would become extinct. Species-area estimates have led to species extinction rate calculations of about 1000 E/MSY and higher. In general, actual observations do not show this amount of loss, suggesting that there is a delay in extinction. Recent work has also called into question the applicability of the species-area relationship when estimating the loss of species. This work argues that the species-area relationship leads to an overestimate of extinction rates. A better relationship to use may be the endemics-area relationship. Using this method would bring estimates down to around 500 E/MSY in the coming century. Note that this value is still 500 times the background rate.

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Species-area extinction estimates: Studies have shown that the number of species that are present increases with the size of the habitat. As habitat is lost, the number of species present will decrease.