3: Biodiversity and dead dinosaurs

An independent and international body called the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, but let’s just stick to IPBES…) did a global assessment recently, where they took a look at how life everywhere on the planet is doing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer was ‘not great’. The key message of their assessment was that 1 million species are at risk of becoming extinct.

We have started hearing a lot of news like this recently, about how various reports, studies and polls have shown that the environment is in a miserable state. After a while it can all start to blur into one, and can seem too big and confusing to deal with. This isn’t surprising when we talk about climate change, global warming, plastic, pollution and loss of biodiversity as if it they are all the same big disastrous thing. They are all connected for sure, but each of them are a different phenomenon with their own problems and solutions. So instead trying to solve 5 vague issues at once, it might be helpful to pin down each exact problem, one at a time, so that our hunt for solutions can be a little more focused.

Here I am going to explore biodiversity- what it was in the depths of history, what it is today, and what it could be in the future.

Brief intro

Biodiversity is the number of different species in a place. A golf course has a low biodiversity, as it is pretty much just grass, whereas a jungle has high biodiversity, because it has so many different types of plants, animals and fungi that many new ones are still being discovered by science today.

A lush and diverse rainforest. I won’t bother showing you a golf course… (Picture: Vyacheslav Argenberg/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0)

What is important to note is that biodiversity is not a set thing. The diversity of species on the planet has changed quite drastically in the past, and is also changing quite drastically today, but the changes in the number of species today is unique because it is actually something that we can actually act on. To put it into context, let’s take a look at…

What Was

The year is 450 million B.C. You are some kind of blob, something halfway between a slug and a limpet, living your little blob life in the ocean. But the weather has started getting colder, and the sea levels are dropping, so your little blobby sea home is shrinking. You hear that on land volcanoes have been erupting, releasing toxic gases which cover the sun. Your shrinking, freezing home starts to get darker. Plants struggle to grow, your fellow creatures struggle to find food. Individuals, then whole populations start to die. It must feel like the end of the world.

Except it’s not, which we know because 450 million years later here we are and the earth is still standing. This gloomy little tale is based in what is called the end-Ordovician mass extinction (Ordovician being the name for the time period from 485 million to 443 million years ago). This was one of 5 major mass extinctions in earth’s history, another one being the end Cretaceous extinction (also called the KT extinction) 65 million years ago which saw the downfall of the dinosaurs.

Each extinction event was caused by a combination of extreme environmental factors, including dramatic cooling, changes in sea levels, poisonous gases being released by volcanoes, and ash clouds covering the sun so stopping plants from being able to grow. These events were massively impactful, with sometimes as much as half of life on earth dying out and these species being lost to the world forever.

(Image adapted from CNX OpenStax/Wikimedia Common/ CC BY 4.0)

However, after each catastrophe life slowly returned. Just like over time how the descendants of wolves have become very different types of dogs, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, the creatures of the past also started to have very different kinds of descendants. Given a few extra million years compared to the wolves, the descendants of these prehistoric creatures eventually became so different that they became distinct species. With this the earths biodiversity, it’s number of different species, rose again. Until the next extinction.

Violent mass extinctions weren’t the only way plants and animals went extinct. Sometime it just happened. If a species wasn’t very strong or fast compared to those around it, it may lose all fights for food and resources, and so died off (hence the phrase survival of the fittest). Sometimes a species just had a really small number to begin with, so if your entire population of super unique bugs got accidentally sat on by a t-rex, then that’s your entire species gone. Ooops…

These are called baseline extinctions, so while new species appear over time, others disappear and a somewhat unsteady balance remains.

The bugs-getting-sat-on scenario isn’t as unlikely as you’d think. Some species really only exist in a tiny area, like this ‘Wilson’s bird of paradise’ which is only found on two tiny islands, Waigeo and Batanta , off the coast of West Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Serhanoksay/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

If changes in biodiversity have happened in the past so often then, why are we worried about the changes today? It will just fix itself with time right? Well, yes and no. Let’s take a look at today.

What is

Right now we are going through what has been called the Anthropocene extinction, a new sixth mass extinction event. What sets this one apart from the others is the cause, humans. Creatures like the dodo, the moa and the Formosan clouded leopard have been driven to extinction in recent times because of over hunting. Others like orangutans and lemurs are falling in number because of our destruction of their habitats, and there are growing worries for many species of whales and turtles as toxic chemicals created by humans are poisoning their food in the oceans. Climate change is affecting the survival of some species too, but that’s a whole other article so let’s just put that to one side for now. Even without considering it, the extinction rate is worryingly high.

Will it ‘fix’ itself? Well yeah, probably, but this could take millions of years and it won’t necessarily ‘fix’ itself the way we want it. We could have a planet of very resilient species like bacteria, rats and cockroaches, whilst all the pandas, puppies and people are long gone.

At this point it is easy to get angry at humanity and feel helpless amid all these animals (and plants- all life!) dying out, but earth’s sixth mass extinction is different from the past ones in another important way too. We can stop it.

The Moa was actually a group of 9 species of birds, all flightless and giant and living in New Zealand (Picture: Lionel Walter Rothschild/Public Domain)

What will be

Stopping many giant volcanoes erupting or redirecting a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth are pretty difficult things to do, and if we had been around 65 million years ago there is little chance we could save our dinosaur friends. However, as the current extinction event is caused by humans, it can equally be stopped by humans (or at least slowed down again to the normal baseline level), which can be done in two mains way.

  • Stop killing everything– We kill animals for all kinds of reason from food to sport to getting of them because they’re seen as a pest. For certain species, looking after their numbers means doing this harvesting by only taking a small part of the population. This can be done by doing things like following sustainable fishing quotas which put a limit on how much fish boats can catch. For species that are really struggling, like Pangolins whose body parts are used in some forms of Chinese medicine and who are at risk of extinction, it’s better to just not hunting them at all. While quotas exist for different kinds of hunting and harvesting, some of them aren’t very effective or very well enforced so could do with improvement too.

    Many of us don’t actually take part in the harvesting of wildlife, but that doesn’t automatically make us the Mother Teresa of the natural world. ‘Not killing everything’ also means not taking all the food and destroying the habitats of wildlife. We often do this indirectly, by buying products which are created by e.g felling the Amazon rainforest to make space for mass beef cattle ranches, and cutting down the forests that orangutans live in to create palm oil plantations. Carefully buying local and wildlife friendly products can have a huge positive impact on supporting biodiversity by protecting their homes, and not killing too many, if any of them.
  • Promote life!– Not taking away is nice, but giving can be even nicer. Conservation of species can happen at a very large scale, such as sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for endangered animals. However, some creatures which get a bit less attention could really do with our help too and this can be done in very simple ways. Planting wild flowers for bees and butterflies, leaving hedges and piles of garden waste for hedgehogs to live in, and leaving a gap in an attic or shed for barn owl and bats to live in all are super important for helping these species to thrive, and to avoid being put on the endangered or even extinct list. Some of these animals are already declining in number, but even for those who aren’t, it’s nice to prevent a problem before it has even started!
File:Hidcote Manor Gardens - geograph.org.uk - 1465025.jpg
This photo of Hidcote Manor gardens shows how letting a garden become a little bit wild and overgrown can actually provide important habitats for many species of plant, insect, bird and small mammal. (Picture: Stuart Wilding/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

People don’t generally destroy wildlife for fun. It is a by-product of the need for food or a source of money, either directly from the species or the land the species is sitting on having the potential to provide food/money. By only funding food sources which don’t cause massive harm to wildlife (think sustainably fished fish, organic vegetables and generally anything from a local smallholder), the incentives to do environmentally destructive work goes away and then looking after the planet is not only environmentally but also economically positive.

Conscious buying of stuff, planting wildflowers and leaving twig piles in your garden are all little things yet will all very realistically be promoting more biodiversity, and through this helping to fix parts of the big climate-plastic-pollution mess of terror. See, getting started on fixing these problems isn’t so hard after all!

For more info click below:

IPBES report summary

Extinctions of the past

What species are endangered (note the stats on this came out before the IPBES report)

Earth conscious shopping

Music: kongano.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s