Biologists recognize that human populations are embedded in ecosystems and are dependent on them, just as is every other species on the planet. Agriculture began after early hunter-gatherer societies first settled in one place and heavily modified their immediate environment: the ecosystem in which they existed. This cultural transition has made it difficult for humans to recognize their dependence on living things other than crops and domesticated animals on the planet. Today our technology smoothes out the extremes of existence and allows many of us to live longer, more comfortable lives, but ultimately the human species cannot exist without its surrounding ecosystems.
- 21.1: Importance of Biodiversity
- Biodiversity exists at multiple levels of organization, and is measured in different ways depending on the goals of those taking the measurements. These include numbers of species, genetic diversity, chemical diversity, and ecosystem diversity. The number of described species is estimated to be 1.5 million with about 17,000 new species being described each year. Estimates for the total number of eukaryotic species on Earth vary but are on the order of 10 million.
- 21.2: Threats to Biodiversity
- The core threats to biodiversity are human population growth and unsustainable resource use. To date, the most significant causes of extinction are habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and overharvesting. Climate change is predicted to be a significant cause of extinction in the coming century. Habitat loss occurs through deforestation, damming of rivers, and other activities.
- 21.3: Preserving Biodiversity
- Five mass extinctions with losses of more than 50 percent of extant species are observable in the fossil record. Recent extinctions are recorded in written history and are the basis for one method of estimating contemporary extinction rates. The other method uses measures of habitat loss and species-area relationships. Estimates of contemporary extinction rates vary but are as high as 500 times the background rate, as determined from the fossil record, and are predicted to rise.
Thumbnail: Starfish on coral. Tourists often photograph the natural beauty of the reef. (CC BY-SA 3.0; Richard Ling).