When last I posted I posited that the need to protect land and species is important. I told a story of land conservation and the struggles conservationists face to protect land (another example here from Megan). However, while some natural landscapes are preserved for their beauty alone, more often than not they are also conserved for the species we find there.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is a great example of a place that has beautiful landscapes and a species worth saving.
So let’s take a step back, what do we know about life on Earth? How many species are there? Are there certain groups of species represented more than others? Are we protecting and saving more than we are losing or is the proverbial Goliath winning in this story of species conservation?
Currently we know, through collection and observation, that there are approximately 1.3 million species globally, with the majority of known species represented in the Animal (or Animalia) kingdom. Insects reign supreme representing over 75 percent of this kingdom (sorry mammals, we aren’t the most abundant or species-rich group in the kingdom of Animalia). The second most species-rich kingdom is Plantae, followed by Fungi, while many small and microscopic species make up the remaining groups. 1.3 million species seems like an enormous number but these are only described species. When you consider how many species scientist have statistically predicted that have yet to be described it pales in comparison (check out Dom’s post here to understand how species can be classified). To put it simply, recent estimates project the number of species to be closer to 8.7 million. That means despite centuries of cataloging species we have only identified 15 percent of all living species!
Number of known species contrasted with the latest predicted number of possible species that exist on Earth.
This fact alone should astonish you but there are some people who may say “So what? There are a lot of species. We have time to count them all. If not, who cares? What are we really losing?” We should first consider how many species we lose per year. Pre-human extinction rates (generally referred to as the natural background rate) have been estimated at 0.1 species per million species per year, which is a very small number. Current extinction estimates are 100 species per million species, which is a 1,000-fold increase! With a predicted 85 percent of species unaccounted for it is hard to say what we stand to lose but we can look at known examples throughout the world to help illustrate this point.
Nearly 800 species lost with 1,000s more endangered.
Not surprisingly the biggest threat to biodiversity is habitat destruction. With habitat destruction comes a host of problems associated with the loss of ecosystem services (e.g. food, fuel, medicines, pollination, water and air purification, and beauty of nature) all of which are provided by a variety of organisms seemingly working in concert to provide these services for our benefit. However, these species motives aren’t truly altruistic but rather their services are a product of what benefits each individual organism. When we think about pollination and crops we should consider the bees and what happens if certain species are lost. The loss of species through deforestation and climate change can increase the spread of certain infectious disease through a loss of incompetent hosts that may otherwise break the cycle of the pathogens (learn more about climate change here from Caroline and pathogens from Jill here and here).When we lose species we also lose potential medicines. Think about the everyday things we take for granted from natural sources like aspirin that was isolated from the willow tree or penicillin isolated from fungi. There is also taxol isolated from the yew tree which is a drug used to treat some forms of cancer. There are still many treatments yet to be discovered. Take for example the Polar bear, they may hold the key to treating osteoporosis, kidney failure, and type II diabetes but their habitat is being lost due to climate change and if they disappear, so do these potential treatments (read more about it here). And these are just a few examples out of millions of reasons why we should care about preserving species. Of course, if I haven’t convinced you yet, just think about how long species take to evolve (for more details check out Dom’s blog).
What secrets do polar bears hold for advances in medicine?
Not all is lost, and thanks to environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act certain species have made full recoveries (more here). However, there is always more to be done! (Find out more about what is endangered here). For some people, preserving life is important no matter what the species. For others, they need to see a direct benefit to them before they will take action. Regardless of which camp you belong to, everyone should engage in their community and make a positive change to reduce the impacts of species loss.
Helpful links and how you can get involved:
An iconic and contentious recovery story.