Protecting biodiversity is a goal of most people who value the environment. My question is what are the goals of biodiversity science and how do we achieve them? Some history is in order here. The term ‘biodiversity’ was coined in the 1980s as the complete biosphere including all species and ecosystems on Earth. The idea of cataloguing all the species on Earth was present many decades before this time, since the origin of the biological sciences. By the 1990s ‘biodiversity conservation’ became a popular subject and has grown greatly since then as a companion to CO2 emissions and the climate change problem. The twin broad goals of biodiversity science and biodiversity conservation are (1) to name and describe all the species on Earth, and (2), to protect all species from extinction, preventing a loss of biodiversity. How can we achieve these two goals?
The first goal of describing species faces challenges from disagreements over what a species is or is not. The old description of a species was to describe what group it was part of, and then how different this particular species was from other members of the group. In the good old days this was primarily based on reproductive incompatibility between species, if no successful reproduction, must be a new species. This simple common-sense view was subject to many attacks since some organisms that we see as different can in fact interbreed. Lions and tigers breed together and are an example, but if their interbred offspring are sterile, clearly, they are two different species. But many arguments arose because there was no data available for 99% of species to know if they could interbreed or not. The fallback position has been to describe the anatomy of a potential species and its relatives and judge from anatomy how different they were. Endless arguments followed, egged on by naturalists who pointed out that if the elephants in India were separated by a continent from elephants in Africa, clearly, they must be different species defined by geography. Many academic wars were fought over these issues.
Then in 1953 the structure of DNA was unravelled, and a new era dawned because with advances in technology of decoding genes we could describe species in a completely new way by determining how much DNA they had in common. But what is the magic percentage of common DNA? Humans and chimpanzees have 98.6% of their DNA in common, but despite this high similarity no one argues that they are the same species.
Despite this uncertainty the answer now seems much simpler: sequence the DNA of everything and you will have the true tree of life for defining separate species. While this was a dream 20 years ago, it is now a technical reality with rapid sequencing methods to help us get criminals and define species. Problem (1) solved?
Enter the lonely ecologist into this fray. Ecologists do not just want names, they wish to understand the function of each of the ‘species’ within communities and ecosystems, how does all this biodiversity interact to produce what we see in the landscape? For the moment we have approximately 10 million species on Earth, but somewhere around 80% of these ‘species’ are still undescribed. So now we have a clash of biodiversity visions, we cannot describe all the species on Earth even on the time scale of centuries, so we cannot achieve goal (1) of biodiversity science in any reasonable time. We have measured the DNA sequence of thousands of organisms that we can capture but we cannot describe them formally as species in the older sense. Perhaps it is akin to having all the phone numbers in the New York City phone book but not knowing to whom the numbers belong.
But the more immediate problem comes with objective (2) to prevent extinctions. Enter the conservation ecologist. The first problem is discussed above, we ecologists have no way of knowing how many species are in danger of extinction. We must look for rare or declining species, but we have complete inventory for few places on Earth. We must concentrate on large mammals and birds, and hope that they act as umbrella species and represent all of biodiversity. When we do have information on threatened species, for the most part there is no money to do the ecological studies needed to reverse declines in abundance. If there is money to list species and give a recovery plan on paper, then we find there is no money to implement the recovery plan. The Species-At-Risk act in Canada was passed in 2002 and has generated many recovery plans mostly for vertebrate species that have come to their attention. Almost none of these recovery plans have been completed, so in general we are all in favour of preventing extinctions but only it if costs us nothing. By and large the politics of preventing extinctions is very strongly supported, but the economic value of extinctions is nearly zero.
None of this is very cheery to conservation biologists. Two approaches have been suggested. The first is Big Science, use satellites and drones to scan the Earth every year to describe changes in landscapes and from these images infer biodiversity ‘health’. Simple and very expensive with AI to the rescue. But while we can see largescale landscape changes, the crux is to do something about them, and it is here that we fail because of the wall of climate change that we have no control over at present. Big Science may well assist us in seeing patterns of change, but it produces no path to understanding food webs or mediating changes in threatened populations. The second is small-scale biodiversity studies that focus on what species are present, how their numbers are changing, and what are the causes of change. Difficult, possible, but very expensive because you must put biologists in the field, on the ground to do the relevant measurements over a long-time frame. The techniques are there to use, thanks to much work on ecological methods in the past. What is missing again is the money. There are a few good examples of this small-scale approach but without good organization and good funding many of these attempts stop after too few years of data.
We are left with a dilemma of a particular science, Biodiversity Science, that has no way of achieving either of its two main objectives to name and to protect species on a global level. On a local level we can adopt partial methods of success by designating and protecting national parks and marine protected areas, and by studying only a few important species, the keystone species of food webs. But then we need extensive research to determine how to protect these areas and species from the inexorable march of climate change, which has singlehandedly complicated achieving biodiversity science’s two goals. Alas at the present time we may have another science to join the description of economics as a “dismal science” And we have not even started to discuss bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
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