What is Biodiversity?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Biodiversity refers to the variation of life forms. It can be used to describe the variation of life in a single ecosystem, a geographical region, or an entire planet. Many biologists believe that biodiversity is an important part of sustainability, and that the more biodiverse a region is, the healthier it is. As a general rule, biodiversity is greater around the equator and less marked at the poles, due to the more harsh and demanding environment at the poles.

As a general rule, biodiversity is greater around the equator and less marked at the poles.
As a general rule, biodiversity is greater around the equator and less marked at the poles.

The term appears to have been coined in print in 1988 by E.O. Wilson, a famous biologist. Concerns about biological diversity were already well established; as early as 1975, the Nature Conservancy was publishing studies on diversity in various regions, and talking about the impact of diversity on the well being of the land and other life forms. Studies on various regions often include a discussion of biodiversity, which can be calculated in a number of ways, ranging from complex rubrics to basic counts of how many different species there are.

One of the greatest benefits of biodiversity is flexibility. A large number of unique species can flex with changing conditions, with numbers of various life forms increasing or decreasing to meet a changing environment. Biodiversity can also help to make natural populations stronger and healthier, by promoting the best individuals through competition and predation. Biodiverse crops tend to fare better than single crops, and biodiversity also contributes to the delicate balance of ecosystems, helping to regulate waste disposal, water quality, fertilization, and environmental factors.

On the smallest levels, biologists examine biodiversity in terms of single ecosystems, sometimes also called biomes. They may also compare biodiversity across ecosystems; for example, two watersheds with similar geographic and geologic conditions might have different levels of biodiversity. Some biologists also look at larger regions, or entire countries; questioning, for example, the impact of heavy commercial agriculture on the biodiversity of a nation.

As a planet, Earth itself is incredibly biodiverse. The planet hosts organisms which range in size from tiny viruses to huge whales, and life forms have been discovered everywhere from the seemingly hostile environments around hydrothermal vents to the lush tropical regions which mark the Earth's equator. Many biologists feel that steps should be taken to preserve this biodiversity because it benefits the health of Earth as a whole, and further study may be required to understand the exact interactions of all the life forms on Earth. Biodiversity is also simply aesthetically pleasing, as many visitors to the tropics and other incredibly biodiverse regions have noted.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Aquatic biodiversity is one area that often gets overlooked, probably because people cannot really see it with their own eyes.

But under the water, just like on the land, the loss of plant and animal species has been alarming. And we know so little about the ocean and how it works systemically that there is no way to estimate how significant these losses will be.


It is a shame that we don't make more of an effort to support the principles of biodiversity, particularly in the area of agriculture.

There used to be a time when farms would plant a variety of crops to the benefit of all. The crops were better, the soil was better and ultimately the farmer and the consumer benefited.

Now we have the endless expanses of corn or other monoculture crops that are mostly propped up by chemical fertilizers, unsustainable irrigation practices and genetically modified crops. It doesn't take a PhD to realize that that is a problem.

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