Scientists say it’s clear that there’s a biodiversity crisis, but there are many questions about the details. Which species will lose? Will new communities be healthy and desirable? Will the rapidly changing ecosystems be able to deal with climate change? And where should conservation actions be targeted?
To find answers, scientists need better data from field sites around the world, collected at regular intervals over long periods of time. Such data don’t exist for much of the world, but scientists are trying to fill the gaps in Europe. They are planning a comprehensive network, called EuropaBON, that will combine research plots, citizen scientists, satellite sensors, models and other methods to generate a continuous stream of biodiversity data for the continent. The effort will inform European policymakers, who are pushing for a strong and verifiable global biodiversity agreement when nations next meet to renew the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — an international pact to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.
Biological diversity is a shape-shifting term that has been used in many ways. The CBD takes a broad approach, defining it as “the variability among living organisms from all sources”. This includes, it says, “diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.
“Everybody could sign up to such a definition,” says Chris Thomas, an ecologist at the University of York, UK. “It means that different people can pick on different aspects that are all included within that all-encompassing definition, and find almost whatever trend they want.”
Scientists measure biodiversity through many metrics, but the most common is species richness: a simple count of the number of species in the area. They also check the relative abundance of different organisms — a metric called species evenness — and track the identity of species to learn the ‘community composition’. Further complicating matters, scientists sometimes tally biomass instead of species richness, especially when it comes to insects.
Using such measures, the clearest signal that the world is losing biodiversity comes from the bookkeeper of species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It has found that 26% of all mammals, 14% of birds and 41% of amphibians are currently threatened globally. Insufficient data are available for other groups, such as most plants and fungi. Extinction rates in the past few centuries are much higher than they had been before humans started to transform the planet; some estimates suggest current rates are 1,000 times the background level. One calculation estimates that, if high rates continue, then within 14,000 years, we could enter the sixth mass extinction — an event similar to the one that wiped out about three-quarters of the planet’s species, including dinosaurs, 65 million years ago4. For the most critically endangered species, the death knell could come within decades. [Continue reading…]