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What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is a short term for biological diversity. The term includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. Although it is very common to use biodiversity as shorthand for species, it actually means everything from genetic material to entire ecosystem and the relationships among those different pieces of the whole. Biodiversity is the foundation of all life on Earth and without it we cannot survive. It underpins functioning ecosystems, which provide food, water, medicines and a host of cultural and spiritual values that allow people to thrive. Biodiversity can be described as the fabric of life. When one thread is lost, the entire fabric starts to disintegrate.

Biodiversity or biological diversity is defined by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity as: The variability among living organisms from all sources, including, inter alia [among other things], terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

What are the thee levels of biodiversity?

There are 3 distinct levels of biodiversity:

  • Species diversity: diversity among species present in different ecosystems. This is the diversity of populations of organisms and species and the way they interact.
  • Genetic diversity: diversity of genes within a species and processes such as mutations, gene exchanges, and genome dynamics that occur at the DNA level and generate evolution.
  • Ecosystem diversity: genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity of a given region. This is the diversity of species interactions and their immediate environment.

  • Genetic diversity ensures that parents pass on the traits (such as disease resistance and physical features) that their offspring need to survive. Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. With more variation, it is more likely that some individuals in a population will possess variations of alleles that are suited for the environment. Those individuals are more likely to survive to produce offspring bearing that allele. The population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals. Diversity within a species is necessary to maintain diversity among species, and vice versa. The interdependence between genetic and biological diversity is delicate. Changes in biological diversity lead to changes in the environment, leading to adaptation of the remaining species. Changes in genetic diversity, such as in loss of species, leads to a loss of biological diversity. When small populations are isolated from other populations of their species, they may be forced to inbreed, possibly leading to a loss of genetic diversity and to the extinction of the population.

    Species diversity ensures that ecosystems survive. Species are relatively easy to identify by eye in the field, whereas genetic diversity (above) requires laboratories, time and resources to identify and ecosystem diversity (see below) needs many complex measurements to be taken over a long period of time. Species are well known and are distinct units of diversity. Each species can be considered to have a particular "role" in the ecosystem, so the addition or loss of single species may have consequences for the system as a whole. Conservation efforts often begin with the recognition that a species is endangered in some way, and a change in the number of species in an ecosystem is a readily obtainable and easily comprehensible measure of how healthy the ecosystem is.

    Ecosystem diversity ensures the health of the entire planet. For example, rainforests act as filters for the Earth's air, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Oceans also absorb carbon dioxide, a well-known greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Wetlands and estuaries act as filters for the Earth's freshwaters and nurseries for the Earth's marine populations. Without these ecosystems, life on Earth would be very different than what it is today.

    Why is biodiversity important?

    All species are an integral part of their ecosystem by performing specific functions that are often essential to their ecosystems and often to human survival as well. Some of the functions different species provide are to:

  • Capture and store energy
  • Produce organic material
  • Decompose organic material
  • Cycle water and nutrients
  • Control erosion or pests
  • Help regulate climate and atmospheric gases

  • Ecosystem diversity is important for primary production in terms of:
  • Soil fertility
  • Plant pollination
  • Predator control
  • Waste decomposition

  • Removing species from ecosystems removes those important functions. Therefore, the greater the diversity of an ecosystem the better it can maintain balance and productivity and withstand environmental stressors. Biodiversity is important economically in terms of:
  • Food resources: agriculture, livestock, fish and seafood,
  • Biomedical research: coral reefs are home to thousands of species that may be developed into pharmaceuticals to maintain human health and to treat and cure disease,
  • Industry: textiles, building materials, cosmetics, etc., and
  • Tourism and recreation: Beaches, forests, parks, ecotourism.

  • Biodiversity has an intrinsic value because all species:
  • Provide value beyond their economic, scientific, and ecological contributions,
  • Are part of our cultural and spiritual heritage,
  • Are valuable simply for their beauty and individuality, and
  • Also have a right to life on this planet.

  • We have an ethical responsibility to protect biodiversity. Biodiversity is important to science because it helps us understand how life evolved and continues to evolve. It also provides an understanding on how ecosystems work and how we can help maintain them for our own benefit.

    Why is marine biodiversity important?

    Every ecosystem performs certain functions that are critically important for organisms. One of the most important functions of marine ecosystems is the production of plant biomass from sunlight and nutrients (primary productivity), which represents the basic food source for all life in the ocean, and ultimately also for humans. Around half of the worldwide primary productivity is achieved by microscopically small plants, the phytoplankton, which grow and divide in the ocean. Another function performed by ecosystems is the creation of habitats, or structures, in coastal ecosystems. For example, macroalgae, seagrass and corals form large undersea forests, meadows or reefs that provide habitats for many other species such as molluscs, crustaceans and fish. Kelp forests and seagrass meadows in the Baltic Sea are vital habitats for the fry and juvenile fish that grow up here before swimming into the open ocean as adults. Gastropods and small crustaceans likewise feed on microalgae growing on the kelp or seagrass. They thereby ensure that the structure-forming plants are not smothered, and are allowed to grow that is their contribution to the ecosystem. The molluscs and crustaceans that feed on microalgae are the basic food source for larger predatory crustaceans and fish. Seagrass and sea weeds itself have relatively long life spans because they are poor food sources for grazing crustaceans and molluscs. They store nutrients in their biomass for a long time, including nitrogen and phosphorous compounds transported by rivers from agricultural areas to the sea. Seagrass and macroalgae thus function as a kind of biological purification system in coastal ecosystems. Experiments in coastal ecosystems, particularly seagrass meadows and kelp forests, have shown that biological diversity in the oceans is essential for maintaining the ecosystem functions described above. Species diversity was decreased in various ways during these experiments in order to compare the ecosystem functions of species-rich with species-poor areas. In one field experiment, for example, the number of seaweed species was artificially reduced by removing some at the beginning of the growth period. The total algal biomass in this species-poor area did, in fact, decrease, thereby resulting in a decline in the food for consumers as well as the number of available habitats. In another experiment, the number of grazing species that feed on the microalgae growing on seagrass was reduced. It was found that the species-poor grazer communities consumed fewer microalgae than species-rich communities. The shortage of grazing species resulted in a slower growth of seagrass because the increased growth of microalgae repressed photosynthesis in the seagrass. These two experiments indicate that a decrease in biological diversity has a negative impact on the structure of the habitat, regardless of whether the number of species of producers (macroalgae) or consumers (grazers) is reduced.

    What are the main threats to biodiversity?

  • Habitat loss and degradation affects 86% of all threatened birds, 86% of the threatened mammals assessed and 88% of the threatened amphibians.
  • Introductions of Invasive Alien Species that establish and spread outside their normal distribution. Some of the most threatening invasive species include cats and rats, green crabs, zebra mussels, the African tulip tree and the brown tree snake. Introductions of alien species can happen deliberately or unintentionally, for example, by organisms hitch-hiking in containers, ships, cars or soil.
  • Over-exploitation of natural resources. Resource extraction, hunting, and fishing for food, pets, and medicine.
  • Pollution and diseases. For example, excessive fertilizer use leads to excessive levels of nutrients in soil and water.
  • Human-induced climate change. For example, climate change is altering migratory species patterns, and increasing coral bleaching.

  • What is biodiversity crisis?

    Scientists say there is a biodiversity crisis because the current rate of extinction is roughly 1,000 times faster than the natural rate. This is often referred to as Sixth Extinction. Besides diminishing the natural world around us, scientists believe that this loss of biodiversity will harm people. This is because we depend on nature for food, medicines (such as cancer treatments), industrial products (such as oils and resins), and vital ecosystem services (such as water purification, erosion control, and climate control). The rate of extinction has accelerated throughout human history, and biodiversity loss is occurring throughout the world. More than 1,000 species are known to have gone extinct in the last 400 years, including the Passenger Pigeon and Stellar's Sea Cow. In addition, many subspecies have gone extinct. Subspecies are genetically distinct populations of a species and can be very different from each other. Coral reefs provide food, storm protection, jobs, recreation and other income sources for more than 500 million people worldwide yet 70% of coral reefs are threatened or destroyed. With the current biodiversity loss, we are witnessing the greatest extinction crisis since dinosaurs disappeared from our planet 65 million years ago. Not only are these extinctions irreversible, but they also pose a serious threat to our health and wellbeing.

    How do biologists measure biodiversity?

    Because it is impractical or impossible to count every individual in most populations or communities (groups of populations), biologists measure biodiversity by first sampling the organisms and then extrapolating to estimate the total number of organisms. For example, to compare the number of bird species in different types of forest, biologists record the number and species of individual birds encountered at randomly selected locations within each forest type. Population biologists compare the average density of the individual species in each forest type. Community biologists compare the average number of species in a given area, such as a square meter or square kilometer, or the diversity index in a given area. The higher the diversity index, the more species and the more even the distribution of individual organisms among these species. Biologists interested in genetic or ecosystem diversity rely on similar sampling procedures and diversity indices.

    Why Kerala coast is highly productive?

    Nature has endowed the state with a long stretch of coastline extending over 590 km, which constitutes approximately 10 percent of the coastline of the country. The continental shelf area of the state is 39,139 sq. km, the area within the 18 m depth range accounts for 5,000 sq. km. The profile of the shelf is with uniform gradient up to 80 m depth and thereafter the slope appears more pronounced. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends up to 200 nautical miles far beyond the continental shelf, which covers an area of 2,18,536 sq. km. provide opportunities in traditional fishing in inshore waters from ages. The area is subjected to two monsoons viz., the south-west monsoon and the north-east monsoon. The south-west monsoon coincides with the period of upwelling and phytoplankton bloom, which results in a large number of fish and shellfish in the area. The well-known Wadge Bank is situated within the exploitable limit of Kerala. The mud banks (Chakara), an unique phenomenon in the coastal waters of Kerala, provide the traditional fisher folk with rich supply of fish and shellfish, especially during monsoon.

    What is the species diversity in Kerala coast?

    The marine biodiversity of Kerala coast is represented by over 5,000 species, including 17 species of marine mammals, 66 species of coastal and marine birds, 9 species of reptiles (turtles and sea snakes), 740 species of fish, 9 species of tunicates 64 species of echinoderms, 1,000 species of arthropods (copepods, amphipods, isopods, prawns, crabs, lobsters, etc), 250 species of molluscs, 20 species of annelids, 90 species of bryozoans, 26 species of cnidarians, 30 species of sponges, 50 species of protistans, 92 species of sea weeds, and several species of organisms in other categories. The investigations on many minor phyla occurring along the Kerala coast are far from complete.

    What is Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)?

    The United Nations held three conferences (between 1967 and 1982) on this aspect and finally the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982. The Convention laid down rules and regulations to rationally manage oceanic resources and conserve them for future generations. The oceans have been divided into several zones: Territorial sea (12 nautical miles (n.m.) from coastline), Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ; 200 n.m. from coastline), and the International Area of the Seabed (beyond the EEZ). Coastal nations have exclusive rights to explore and exploit all the resources within their respective EEZ`s. Resources in the international area are a common heritage of mankind.

    What are the habitats and ecosystems in Kerala coast?

    While a number of classifications exist the following is a commonly followed one:

  • Oceanic - relative shallow part of the ocean on top of the continental shelf
  • Profundal - deep water below the range of effective light penetration
  • Benthic - the seabed, bottom substrates
  • Intertidal - area between the high and low tides
  • Estuaries - semi-enclosed body of water flowing -e.g. a river- to the sea
  • Mangroves - saline coastal swamp in (sub-) tropical region
  • Coral reefs - limestone structure constructed by organisms
  • Salt marshes - coastal wetland extending landward to the high tide line
  • Hydrothermal vents - system driven by chemosynthetic sulphur bacteria

  • How Much Life in the Sea?

    We don`t know exactly how varied is marine life? How many species of living things exist in the water along the coasts and in the ocean? From 2000 to 2010, an unprecedented worldwide collaboration by scientists around the world (Census of Marine Life) set out to try and answer that very question. In 2011, a team of scientists looked at all the known species on Earth, and the different categories into which they are grouped, and extrapolated an estimate of approximately 8.7 million species on Earth, 2.2 million of which live in the ocean. This would mean, they said, that 91 percent of all marine species have yet to be discovered and that`s after the huge effort put forth by the Census of Marine Life (submitted report in 2010).

    What is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)?

    The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international legally-binding treaty with three main goals: conservation of biodiversity; sustainable use of biodiversity; fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. Its overall objective is to encourage actions which will lead to a sustainable future.

    The CBD`s governing body is the Conference of the Parties (COP). This ultimate authority of all governments (or Parties) that have ratified the treaty meets every two years to review progress, set priorities and commit to work plans. The CBD was opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and entered into force in 1993. To date, 193 nations are parties to the CBD.

    When is United Nations Decade on Biodiversity?

    The United Nations General Assembly declared 2011-2020 the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (Resolution 65/161). The UN Decade on Biodiversity serves to support and promote implementation of the objectives of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, with the goal of significantly reducing biodiversity loss.

    More details at

    What is Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020?

    The vision of this Strategic Plan is a world of "Living in harmony with nature" where "By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people."

    The mission of the Strategic Plan is to "take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity in order to ensure that by 2020 ecosystems are resilient and continue to provide essential services, thereby securing the planet's variety of life, and contributing to human well-being, and poverty eradication. To ensure this, pressures on biodiversity are reduced, ecosystems are restored, biological resources are sustainably used and benefits arising out of utilization of genetic resources are shared in a fair and equitable manner; adequate financial resources are provided, capacities are enhanced, biodiversity issues and values mainstreamed, appropriate policies are effectively implemented, and decision-making is based on sound science and the precautionary approach."

    Goals and targets particularly relevant to marine biodiversity are provided below.
    STRATEGIC GOAL B: Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use
    TARGET 6: By 2020 all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem based approaches, so that overfishing is avoided, recovery plans and measures are in place for all depleted species, fisheries have no significant adverse impacts on threatened species and vulnerable ecosystems and the impacts of fisheries on stocks, species and ecosystems are within safe ecological limits.
    TARGET 7: By 2020 areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity.
    TARGET 8: By 2020, pollution, including from excess nutrients, has been brought to levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity.
    TARGET 10: By 2015, the multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs, and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification are minimized, so as to maintain their integrity and functioning.
    STRATEGIC GOAL C: Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
    TARGET 11: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.
    TARGET 12: By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained. STRATEGIC GOAL D: Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services
    TARGET 14: By 2020, ecosystems that provide essential services, including services related to water, and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable.

    What is Biodiversity Informatics?

    Biodiversity Informatics is the application of informatics to recorded and yet-to-be discovered information specifically about biodiversity, and the linking of this information with genomic, geospatial and other biological and non-biological datasets. Biodiversity Informatics is the application of information technology (IT) tools and approaches to biodiversity information, principally at the organismic level. It thus deals with information capture, storage provision, retrieval, and analysis, focused on individual organisms, populations, and species, and their interactions. It covers information generated by the fields of systematics, evolutionary biology, population biology, and ecology, as well as more applied fields such as conservation biology and ecological management. The word Biodiversity Informatics was coined by John Whiting. Johnson (2007) defined Biodiversity Informatics as "an emerging field that applies information management tools to the management and analysis of species occurrence, taxonomic character, and image data."

    Sarkar (2007) drew an important distinction between the term biodiversity informatics and the term bioinformatics, noting that bioinformatics is an established field that has made significant advances in the development of systems and techniques to organize contemporary molecular data. In a sense, bioinformatics and biodiversity were made for each other. Even before the possibility of gene sequencing was on the horizon, data storage and retrieval were the stuff--and the nightmare--of systematics research. Data were held as card indexes and taxonomic monographs as well as physical specimens in museums and herbaria. Knowledge of specific taxonomic groups was the privilege of handfuls of experts scattered in institutions on different continents. The bioinformatics revolution is finally enabling biodiversity researchers to communicate efficiently with one another, providing a springboard and a common language for progress. Such progress is badly needed, as Wilson points out, if we are to attempt a catalog of life on Earth that is even vaguely complete. This effort has the broader advantage of at last putting biodiversity information into the public domain in accessible forms on the Internet.

    Species 2000, an Internet-based global research program that aims to create an index of the world's (known) species. Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which aims to ensure interoperability among the various databases now emerging from biodiversity studies. These Web resources will be of greatest use if they can be put into a historical context and if the species included are correctly identified. The application of bioinformatics techniques to biodiversity studies does not, of course, obviate the need for the more traditional methods and tools of systematics, especially field exploration and the management of large collections of specimens. According to Prof. E.O. Wilson these activities, and the training of new generations of systematists, are just as critical as ever. Rather than mere millennial buzzwords, bioinformatics and biodiversity studies represent a robust continuation of the science of Linnaeus and Humboldt, the foundation of so much modern biology, and provide the practical means of assessing human impact on the rest of the living world. The websites like the encyclopedia of life ( are efforts in this direction.