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Why you need to be biodiversity aware

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Eleanor Sterling talks about why biodiversity is important and why you should care about it.

2010 was the year the world’s governments agreed to “achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at global, regional, and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.” Eleanor Sterling thinks we have failed to meet our biodiversity goal.

Sterling has been working on conserving biodiversity since 1996, when she joined the American Museum of Natural History Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. Today, Sterling discusses the loss of biodiversity.

Where were you last in the field? What research were you doing? Did you find anything surprising? What does it feel like to be out in nature and how does it feel to see the biodiversity diminish?

In the summer 2009 I went to the remote Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, located about halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa because little is known about sea turtles and their habitats.

Sea turtles at Palmyra Atoll forage in a unique environment currently removed from pervasive human influence. As part of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC)’s Sea Turtle Research and Conservation program, our program goals here are to study sea turtle distribution and abundance, focusing on ecological interactions, behavior, conservation, health issues, and connectivity or migratory linkages to other sites. We want to know more about these reptiles where they are relatively unaffected by people, so we can understand the natural processes, ecological roles, and human impacts.

What surprises you most about Palmyra Atoll?

Each time I return to Palmyra Atoll, I am amazed by this remarkable place on Earth and hopeful that the research conducted by the CBC will contribute to the conservation of endangered sea turtle species. Each visit re-affirms my commitment to the incredibly important field of biodiversity conservation and the work of the CBC to mitigate threats to biodiversity.

How do you make people think about their impact to an ecosystem?

When I talk or teach about biodiversity, I usually start with the deceptively simple question “What is biodiversity?”

The term refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and the ecological and evolutionary processes that sustain it. Biodiversity includes not only species we consider rare, threatened, or endangered, but every living thing – even organisms we know little about, such as microbes, fungi and invertebrates. Species and habitats in every part of the world all play a role in maintaining the healthy ecosystems that support our every day lives.

If people want to think about their impact to an ecosystem, I usually use the lens of threats to biodiversity. Over the last century, humans have come to dominate the planet. Ecosystems are being rapidly altered for numerous reasons, and the planet is undergoing a massive loss of biodiversity due to habitat loss and fragmentation, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Many of our everyday actions, from consumption to our choices of where we live, impact biodiversity. For example, the production and transport involved in a cup of coffee impacts myriad species, from invertebrates to birds to fish.

The good news is that it is within our power to change our actions to help ensure the survival of species and natural systems – and ultimately, ourselves.

Okay, so what can people do about their impact?

We all have a role to play in meeting the challenges of the biodiversity crisis. If we all commit to just one or two lifestyle choices that are more sustainable, over time this will have a cumulative and positive impact on the Earth’s biodiversity. The CBC’s website has a list of simple but powerful actions we all can take, ranging from making different choices in what we eat and buy to how we use energy. I believe the most critical element is cultivating in people an awareness of how our actions impact those around us.

Can you talk on how biodiversity can influence your food supply? Any other issues? GM foods?

Biodiversity and a sustainable food supply are intimately linked by way of both ecosystem goods and services. First, wild or semi domesticated foods form a significant source of nourishment to many people around the world. Nutritional diversity is correlated with improved nutrition.

While there is a global trend towards dietary simplification in favor of a few crops, locally grown and wild foods can provide increased nutrient and caloric intakes. Unsustainable use and biotic simplification threaten these important resources, which often also have critical cultural value. For example, berry picking and seal hunting are important not only for physical nourishment but also to shape cultural identity. Second, services such as nutrient and water cycling, soil aeration, pest control, and pollination are essential in sustaining the global food supply.

Other ecosystem goods and services sustain human health in a variety of ways. Studies have estimated that at least 80% of the world’s population relies on compounds obtained mainly from plants as their primary source of health care. The importance of medicines derived from living things is not limited to the developing world — more than half of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States come from, are derived from, or are patterned after, one or more compounds originally found in a live organism.

Species belonging to many different taxa are invaluable in biomedical research. Examples of health-related ecosystem services include water filtration, flood regulation and waste removal. Intact ecosystems can protect humans from natural disasters, such as cyclones. Also, studies suggest that biodiversity loss is one of the environmental factors associated with disease emergence. Species diversity can act as a buffer for the transmission of some infectious agents, including the Lyme spirochete, West Nile virus, and Hanta viruses.

Recent studies suggest that contact with nature can have positive effects on our mental health.

How has the UN International Year of Biodiversity helped raise awareness?

It’s perhaps too early in the year to gauge its full impact. However, the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) has served as a unifying theme by which a variety of institutions around the world have joined in an effort to highlight a wide variety of aspects related to biodiversity and the current biodiversity crisis. The IYB has been the driver of many biodiversity-centric events including meetings, conferences, film screenings, panels, international policy discussions and instruments around the world. It has spanned new websites, blogs, podcasts, and publications related to biodiversity. More information about partnering institutions and events can be found here.

The hope is that all the efforts during IYB will inspire the world’s leaders, institutions, organizations, industries and citizens to take specific action to abate current rates of biodiversity loss.

The IYB can be an opportunity to reflect on why we failed to meet the 2010 biodiversity target and adapt our goal setting, research goals, and conservation management plans to more effectively incorporate biodiversity conservation as a dynamic process in a human-dominated world. Many more events are planned for what remains of 2010, including discussions about biodiversity during the United Nations General Assembly.

What worries you about declining species?

The loss of important ecosystem services is cause for concern. The processes by which humans degrade and destroy the environment can also lead to, or aggravate, armed conflict, cause mass involuntary migrations. And this can result in negative effects in communities and age groups least able to adapt. They are drivers of important humanitarian crises.

So biodiversity can influence culture?

Beyond those impacts of biodiversity loss on the functioning of ecosystems, human cultures around the world have been, and continue to be, inspired, and even defined in large part by their relationships with the natural world. This is not an exclusive attribute of so-called traditional societies, but it is very much a part of Western civilization as well.

The loss of species therefore threatens important parts of our sense of being.

All species have an inherent value or the right to persist beyond any considerations of what goods or services they provide for humans. In that sense, biodiversity loss represents a significant moral failure.

Image: Eleanor Sterling at the North American launch of 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. Credit: R. Mickens/ AMNH

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure