Throughout history, humans have often regarded themselves as the center of life on Earth. However, the truth is that our existence is intricately interconnected with the natural world. The diversity of plant and animal species, known as biodiversity, plays a crucial role in maintaining the health and stability of our planet.
What Is Biodiversity, and Why Does It Matter?
Animals, from the smallest plankton to apex predators like lions, play a critical role in maintaining environmental stability. Through their actions, they contribute to the dispersal of essential elements, such as fungi, bacteria, nutrients, and water vapor, which enable ecosystems to function properly. They help in the pollination of plants, seed dispersal, and nutrient cycling, and keep food webs in check.
This environmental stability requires a delicate balance between all species. WildAid’s campaigns help keep species on the brink of extinction—and the vital roles they play—from disappearing entirely by reducing the demand for wildlife products.
Let’s dig into some of the ecosystem services we stand to lose with the decline of biodiversity:
The Power of Pollination
Do you like strawberries, avocados, bananas, or chocolate? These foods all come from plants that rely on pollinators to reproduce. In fact, 35% of all agricultural crops require animal pollinators in order to produce the food we eat. And three out of every four flowering plants need pollinators in order to reproduce, too! Put another way, without pollinators, we’d lose one-third of our food and 75% of the flowering plants in the world, which other species depend on, too.
So how do pollinators help plants reproduce? Pollinators need to visit numerous flowers in order to find enough to eat. As they move over the flower, pollen collects on their bodies and is transferred to the next flowers they visit. This fertilizes the flower, and the plant is then able to produce fruit and seeds.
Pollinators depend on being able to visit a large number of flowers in order to consume enough food. Without an adequate supply of flowers, pollinators quickly die. For example, if hummingbirds can’t find enough to eat, they have the potential to starve to death in as few as two hours. And some pollinators rely on specific plants in order to survive. Monarchs, for instance, must lay their eggs on milkweed and consume it during their larval stage. The plant contains toxins that are stored in their bodies and protect them from predators. Without milkweed, we would have no monarch butterflies. And without monarch butterflies, we may not have many of the flowering plants that depend on them to reproduce.
Here are some more important pollinators:
- Honey possums
- Black and white ruffed lemurs
Singing the Praises of Seed Dispersal
Once plants produce seeds, they need a way to spread them to new areas. Many animals fill this vital role by helping to disperse seeds as they move from one place to another. In some cases, plants produce seeds with burrs, hooks, or spines that stick to animals, who then transport the seeds to other places as they travel. Other plants enclose their seeds within tasty fruits that are eaten by animals. The seed is later excreted by the animal in a different area. Some seeds are even eaten twice, first when the initial animal eats it, and then when that animal is eaten by a predator. Passing through the digestive tract of an animal is often vital to plant reproduction because in addition to dispersing the seed, the outer layers or coatings of the seed are often removed, preparing it for germination.
Certain animals, like elephants, play such a critical role in seed dispersal, they are considered keystone species within their ecosystems. Furthermore, some species of plants rely on specific animals to disperse their seed. For example, one species of tree, the Omphalocarpum procerum, relies entirely on African Forest elephants for seed dispersal. Because of its extremely hard shell, no other species of animal is able to eat the donut-shaped fruit the tree produces. Similarly, yew is toxic to many mammals, including humans. However, European badgers are able to eat yew berries and disperse their seeds, helping yew trees grow in new places.
Many other animals also help biodiversity through seed dispersal. Here are just a few:
- Flying foxes
- Galapagos tortoises
Predation Keeps Things in Check
Balance is also important to maintaining biodiversity. If some species become too abundant, they may overconsume resources, resulting in depleting numbers of competing species. As such, predation plays a very important role in biodiversity. By keeping the populations of prey species in check, along with altering their behavior, predators help maintain the balance of the ecosystem and ensure more species are able to thrive in a given environment.
For instance, kelp forests are typically rich in biodiversity, supporting a multitude of species like sea lions, abalones, snails, sponges, giant sea bass, and horn sharks. However, that biodiversity is easily destroyed if just one species is left unchecked–sea urchins. In a healthy ecosystem, otters eat sea urchins, preventing them from overpopulating. However, if otter populations drop, sea urchins are free to overgraze the kelp forest, creating barren areas, and putting other species at risk. This happened in Alaska, where overfishing pollock led to a cascade of changes in other species. Sea lion populations dropped due to the lack of pollock, and killer whales, which normally feed on sea lions, began eating otters instead. As a result, sea urchins overgrazed the kelp forests, leading to loss of habitat and a decline in biodiversity.
Importantly, predators don’t only help biodiversity through eating other animals. They also change the way other species behave. For example, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, an increase in biodiversity was observed. Wolves prey upon elk, which reduces elk populations and helps prevent the elk from overgrazing vegetation. However, scientists believe the change in elk behavior in response to the presence of wolves also plays a large role in increasing biodiversity. That’s because elk now move more frequently and avoid meadows when wolves are present. As a result, aspen and willow stands have recovered and support other species like beavers and songbirds.
Examples of other predators that play important roles in their ecosystems include:
Nutrient Cycling is Critical
Have you ever thought about how nutrients move from one area to another? Nutrient cycling is vital to biodiversity, and many animals play a role in this critical process. If you’ve ever tried to grow a garden and struggled with poor soil or observed a pond becoming overgrown with algae, you’ve witnessed how important nutrient cycling is to the balance of the ecosystem. Both insufficient and excessive amounts of nutrients harm biodiversity by preventing many species from surviving. Animals help increase biodiversity by consuming and excreting nutrients, which then fertilize the environment and support the growth of other species.
For example, phosphorus is essential to plant growth and therefore to the survival of species that depend on that plant growth. Historically whales have played a critical role in moving phosphorus from the ocean to the land. Whales feed deep within the ocean and then swim to the surface to defecate. The nutrients in their waste are then carried to the land by seabirds and migrating fish, like salmon. However, scientists estimate that because of the decline in whale populations driven by hunting, whales now move only about 23% of the phosphorus they once transported. This change in nutrient cycling could mean that within 50 years, we will run out of easily accessible phosphate for use in fertilizers.
Decomposition is another important part of nutrient cycling. When animals die, for instance, scavengers like vultures consume their bodies, including parts like bones and hair that other animals have difficulty digesting. When the vultures later defecate, nutrients are spread to new areas. Scientists believe vultures even play a role in preventing disease by removing bacteria and viruses from the environment. When vultures digest the carrion they eat, bacteria and viruses are destroyed by their stomach acid. This, then, stops disease from spreading to other animals.
This Year’s Theme Reflects Recent Progress
The UN has designated the theme of this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity as “from agreement to action: build back biodiversity.” That’s to reflect the progress that was recently made with the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework. This agreement aims to both stop and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2050 through the achievement of specified goals. However, in order for those goals to be achieved, nations around the world must take action on all the measures specified in the agreement by 2030.
It is crucial that we all let our elected officials know we care about protecting biodiversity through implementing the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework. So as you celebrate this International Day for Biological Diversity, don’t forget to reach out to your representatives. A phone call, email, or letter will let them know biodiversity matters to you!
Everyday Ways You Can Help Our Planet’s Biodiversity
By understanding and valuing the importance of biodiversity and the role animals play, we can strive to protect and conserve the rich tapestry of life that supports us. For example, planting trees and other plants that are native to your area creates vital habitat and food sources for other species. So choose native plants for your landscaping, add native trees to your yard, or ask about planting native trees in your local parks.
Take steps to protect the environment by making sure things like pet waste, fertilizer, trash, plastic, and motor oil don’t enter the water. Recycling as much as you can helps keep waste out of the environment, too. And consider volunteering to help clean up natural habitats so more species can survive.
Remember to say no to products that harm biodiversity, especially anything made from endangered species like pangolins and elephants. Don’t capture or keep wild animals. And prevent pets like cats from roaming freely, so they don’t kill native species.
Finally, consider supporting organizations like WildAid that are working to protect endangered species and vital habitats. You can learn more about the work we are doing to help species like elephants, sea turtles, pangolins, and tigers by visiting our Programs page.
WildAid is also working to protect the biodiversity and delicate ecosystems of our oceans through our BLUEPRINT for Marine Protection program. This program empowers local leaders to strengthen law enforcement and conservation of vulnerable marine areas. To date, we have helped improve protections for more than 8,500 marine species.
Just as every animal species plays an important role in the earth’s biodiversity, every person has the potential to positively impact our planet’s biodiversity. If we all make simple changes like these, we can help other species and restore the earth’s biodiversity.
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WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.
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