What is biodiversity and why is it important?
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What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of life on Earth.
‘Biodiversity’ comes from two words: ‘biological’, which means relating to biology or living organisms, and ‘diversity’, meaning a range of different things or variety. Biodiversity is variation at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels. Biodiversity is the variety of all living things: the different plants, animals and microorganisms, the different genetic information they contain, and the varied ecosystems they form.
Why is biodiversity important?
Biodiversity is fundamentally important. It is considered by many to have intrinsic value: each species has a value and a right to exist, whether or not it is known to have value to humans.
The undoubtable Albert Einstein once said, ‘Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’
All species, including humans, rely on many other species to live. Many of us were taught about the web of life at school. We need varieties of healthy and well-functioning ecosystems to support the life of all species, including humans.
So why do we need to conserve most or every species? We know so little about the interconnectedness and relationships between different species that it is impossible to be sure if there are any redundancies in our natural systems; in other words, we don’t know if we can afford to lose a species without any adverse impact on its ecosystem.
Think of it like a pyramid of oranges, all balancing on each other. Could you pick one orange to remove from the pile and know with confidence that no other oranges would fall?
Biodiversity is considered by many to have intrinsic value: each species has a value and a right to exist, whether or not it is known to have value to humans.
Biodiversity is also important for people and the survival of humanity. The CSIRO describes five core values that humans place on biodiversity:
- Economic—biodiversity provides humans with raw materials for consumption and production. Many livelihoods, such as those of farmers, fishers and timber workers, are dependent on biodiversity.
- Ecological life support—biodiversity provides functioning ecosystems that supply oxygen, clean air and water, pollination of plants, pest control, wastewater treatment and many ecosystem services.
- Recreational—many recreational pursuits rely on our unique biodiversity, such as birdwatching, hiking, camping and fishing. Our tourism industry also depends on biodiversity.
- Cultural—the Australian culture is closely connected to biodiversity through the expression of identity, through spirituality and through aesthetic appreciation. Indigenous Australians have strong connections and obligations to biodiversity arising from spiritual beliefs about animals and plants.
- Scientific—biodiversity represents a wealth of systematic ecological data that help us to understand the natural world and its origins.
Benefits to societies from biodiversity include material welfare, security of communities, resilience of local economies and human health. The benefits of biodiversity to humans are sometimes called ‘ecosystem services.’ Ecosystem services are defined as:
- provisioning services—the production of food, fibre, water and medicines
- regulating services—the control of climate and diseases
- supporting services—nutrient cycling and crop pollination
- cultural services—such as spiritual and recreational benefits.
Any loss or deterioration in the condition of biodiversity can compromise all these values and affect human wellbeing.
Many species and different microbes have provided astounding advances in medical research, improving our understanding of genetics, regeneration of tissues and organs and immunity. The zebrafish for example has an incredible ability to recover fully from a severed spinal cord. Research so far has shown this ability may be present in human genes but is currently inhibited. Who knows what species might provide valuable knowledge in the future? Conservation of biodiversity maximises the future potential to unlock benefits to human health.
To find out more about human health and biodiversity: Chivian, E.S., Bernstein, A.S., Rosenthal, J.P. (2008) Biodiversity and Biomedical Research. In: Chivian, E., Bernstein, A. ed. 2008 Sustaining life: how human health depends on biodiversity. New York: Oxford University Press. Ch.5.
To find out more about biodiversity and why it’s important, see the CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book, which includes some great videos.
Good resources for finding out more about the state of biodiversity international and nationally include the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the national State of the Environment Report.
If you are interested in teaching about biodiversity conservation, find out more about the BCT’s Biodiversity Education Strategy or read about Environmental Education Centres.