Biodiversity is a simple way of saying biological diversity — but don't worry, we can make it even easier than that!
Bio means life.
Biology is the study of life.
Biological refers to the study of life.
Diversity means variety.
So, biological diversity, or biodiversity, means a variety of living things.
Biodiversity: the More, the Merrier
Canada boasts a fantastic diversity of wildlife and habitats. The term wildlife includes plants, invertebrates, micro-organisms, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Canada is home to about 198 species of mammals, 440 birds, 85 amphibians and reptiles, 1,141 fish, as well as about 100,000 species of insects and other invertebrates. We also have an amazing selection of habitats from coast to coast — alpine meadows, thundering sea coasts, rolling prairies, lush rain forests, and vast stretches of arctic tundra — to name only a few. Many of these habitats and the species that live in them are in serious trouble. But we can help by protecting Canada's biodiversity.
We need to look at biodiversity through three "windows": genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity. Conserving these three kinds of diversity is vital to the future of all wildlife — as well as to human beings.
If we take a look through the first window, genetic diversity, we learn that genes are the building blocks of species. We may not actually see them, but scientists can pinpoint where genes are found on our chromosomes. If anyone ever said that you have your father's chin and your mother's nose, they were talking about your genes. You inherited those genes from your parents and all your ancestors before them.
Genes also provide the "blueprints" or operating instructions that tell members of a species how to grow and how to survive. Genes tell a Snowshoe Hare to turn white in winter, a Ruffed Grouse to burrow underneath the snow to save energy, or a robin how to build a nest. These blueprints have evolved over thousands or even millions of years. Their job is to adapt a species to its particular living conditions.
Each species has very special genes that are not found in any other species. When a species becomes extinct, its genes, including those special ones, also disappear. Once lost, those genes are gone forever. And why are they so important? Because all the world's genetic resources are like the hugest ocean of information you can imagine. Each species represents just a drop in the ocean, and in every drop there are amazing secrets waiting to be discovered. So far, scientists have only checked out a few of these drops— but they have helped us enormously. For instance, aspirin, probably the world's most widely used drug, was developed from a "chemical blueprint" found in willow bark. In the same way, chemical blueprints in the Pacific Yew Tree are helpful in treating cancer. Or what about the Rosy Periwinkle, a plant found in the rainforests of Madagascar? Its genes unlocked a cure for childhood lymphocytic leukemia. And who knows what secret the next drop may hold — perhaps a cure for blindness, cancer, or AIDS? That's why we must conserve the Earth's genetic diversity.
The second window we can examine biodiversity through is species diversity. Every ecosystem contains a variety of species that depend on one another for survival in many ways. Sometimes the connection is obvious. An insect may be eaten by a bird, but may itself eat even smaller bugs, or help decompose leaves or pollinate plants. But many connections between species are not all that clear to us, and some are very complex. For instance, the seeds of the Galapagos Tomato must be eaten and digested by the Giant Galapagos Tortoise before they can sprout.
Another interesting example of the interdependence of living things involves the link between kelp forests and sea otters in the coastal waters of B.C. and Alaska. Kelp forests support an amazing diversity of life — molluscs, crustaceans, worms, fish, and countless other tiny but tasty species. So, when kelp beds grow thin, all these species have to go off and search for other habitat — as do fish-eating seals, Bald Eagles, and Sea Otters. It took about 150 years before the relationship between these species was understood; in the meantime, sea otters were nearly hunted to were nearly hunted to extinction for their glossy pelts.
Scientists finally noticed that wherever sea otters disappeared, kelp forests disappeared too, as did seals and Bald Eagles. That's because the otters love to eat Purple Sea Urchins, which happen to dine on kelp. But once kelp is munched loose from the ocean floor by too many hungry urchins, it is washed away with the waves.
Today, sea otters are recovering in Alaska and B.C. because they are protected. And wherever sea otters live, you will also find a healthy balance of sea urchins, kelp forests, fish, seals, and Bald Eagles!
All living things in an ecosystem are linked together in one way or another. That's why if we take away one species, all the rest will be affected — including humans. We may not see the effects on us right away, but sooner or later we will. Compare each species to a stone used to build a bridge. How many stones do you think we can remove before the whole thing comes crashing down? Let's not even try to find that out!
The third window to look at biodiversity through is ecosystem diversity. There are many kinds of ecosystems. In each one, there is a special assortment of species, some of which are found nowhere else. A few examples of ecosystems are mountains, prairies, rocky coasts, swamps, and arctic tundra — but there are many, many more. And remember, some of the species found in these ecosystems could not live anywhere else on Earth.
We must conserve ecosystem diversity to save as many different species as possible. We must conserve species diversity so that a wide variety of genes can be saved — and also to make sure that our bridges of life don't come crashing down! Conserving genetic diversity will ensure that we save as many blueprints as possible. We can succeed simply by helping wildlife in every conceivable way.
Go Ahead – Diversify
If a species is in danger of disappearing, the reason is probably that its habitat is shrinking. Of course, when habitats, ecosystems, and special spaces are threatened, the wildlife that live in them start to vanish. To save our precious wildlife, we must protect the habitats that support them.
Tackling habitat projects with diversity in mind will make a big difference for wildlife and the environment. When you plant a hedgerow or create a nature reserve, think diversity. Provide a wide selection of plants and bushes, as well as sheltering and watering spots to appeal to as many species as possible. The more, the merrier. If you want to attract birds, a variety of plants that bear fruit at different times of the year should do the trick.
Find out what kind of nest box your feathered friends prefer. Birds have many different requirements for their homes. If you put up only one style of nest box, only one or two species will use them. Also, find out what sort of insects they like to eat. Try planting wild flowers to attract bugs that birds think are beak- smacking treats. Be realistic, of course! It's not likely that an Atlantic Puffin will visit your Saskatchewan schoolyard. (We'd like to hear about it if it happens!)
Think about the kinds of diverse habitats you can create in your community or on your school grounds. Shelterbelts, windbreaks, edges, prairie-grass patches, and simple log and brush piles will all appeal to a great variety of wildlife. Of course, whatever you do to improve the environment won't stop at your schoolyard fence. Your habitat improvement plan will help wildlife inside and outside your project space.
What Does Diversity Look Like?
A habitat that attracts lots of birds, bugs, and beasts is not necessarily neat and tidy. If it looks too well-groomed (like the lawn of a golf course, for instance), a few birds may hop by looking for worms, but that's about it. Not a whole lot of wildlife will stick around. A sleek expanse of grass allows no vertical or horizontal diversity. In fact, it provides no variety at all. No shelter, no travelling lanes, no hiding holes or escape hatches, no mud puddles or dusting spots, no lookout perches or safe sunning spots — and probably no tasty snacks. Great for golfers, yes, but not for wildlife.
Now, a habitat or ecosystem that brings lots of species flocking, hopping, slithering, bounding, and flying is, by all odds, pretty messy! We're talking about a natural mess here! Not the human-made litter of papers, broken glass, tires, and other debris that we often see in our communities.
When you look for diversity, you may see horizontal diversity: rock piles for reptiles; puddles and ponds for frogs; fallen logs for fungi, beetles, and salamanders; snags for flying squirrels, hawks, and woodpeckers; wild flowers for butterflies; and fruit trees and clover for deer.
Or you may notice vertical diversity — that is, several levels of growth. You could describe vertical diversity as the combined levels of an unusual five-floor apartment building, with different species living on each floor. These five vertical habitat levels are:
- ground, short grass, and low-lying ground cover;
- tall grass and wild flowers;
- shrubs and climbing vines; and
Some species may spend their whole lives at just one level. Others require several levels to find their food, shelter, and water.
Your Habitat Checklist
The following checklist will remind you of the steps to take in any habitat improvement project. Remember the four basics for any successful project: food, water, shelter, and space.
- Food: Each species has its own idea of what makes a tasty meal. A Peregrine Falcon would turn up its beak at food fit for a caterpillar. Don’t forget that wildlife meals change from season to season and as animals mature.
- Water: Wildlife cannot survive without water. Healthy watering spots, like ponds, lakes, and rivers, mean life for creatures.
- Shelter: Animals need protection from wind, snow, rain, and hungry predators. Shrubs, grasses, flowers, burrows, hedges, nest boxes, abandoned buildings, and living or dead trees are all forms of shelter or cover.
- Space: Every creature has its own needs for space or territory. What’s right for a squirrel might be a tight squeeze for a Polar Bear.
There are other habitat requirements to consider:
- Variety: The more kinds of plants, the better. A good mixture will appeal to a wider range of wildlife.
- Change of seasons: The four basics (above) must be available all year long.
- Arrangement: The four basics must be arranged to suit each species.
- Native plants: Try to use only native wild plants and seeds. You will be giving our wild plant heritage a big boost and providing long-lasting food and shelter for all sorts of animals.
- Climate: Choose plants that are suited to the climate in your area.
Start with expert advice
Before your class tackles a plan to help species or a habitat in trouble, consult with the experts. Even though we mean well, we can sometimes cause terrible problems for wildlife — simply because we don't know any better. So, please, get advice from the proper authorities.
Assess your project
Most provinces and territories now have laws stating that an environmental assessment must be done before structures like bridges, roads, and subdivisions can be built. These studies look at wetlands, soil, plants, and wildlife that could be harmed by a project. Often a public presentation is held so that people can raise concerns or make suggestions. In some cases, a project is cancelled if the study shows that a vulnerable species could be harmed.
Even well-meaning plans to help wildlife can sometimes upset the balance of an ecosystem. A new fish species added to a pond might gobble up other species already living there. Or a pretty wild flower transplanted to your garden might choke out other existing plants — as in the case of Purple Loosestrife, which ravages native vegetation. That's why an environmental assessment is a good idea before you begin your project. Here are some points you will want to cover:
- Make a map of your project site.
- Find out about the history of the area.
- Describe the purpose of your project.
- List the people who will be involved in your project, such as the project manager (your teacher?), wildlife and plant biologists you may consult, team members, and so on.
- Identify and list all the species of vegetation growing on your project site. Are any of them rare or unusual for the area? Will the plants you are planning to introduce fit in well?
- Identify and list all the species of animals living there. Anything unusual? If you happen to attract other species, will they fit in?
- Is there any water close to or on your site? What is the quality of the water? Are there fish or aquatic insects present?
- How is the site currently used by humans? Do people walk there, ride bikes, or dump garbage?
- Specify how you intend to improve the site for wildlife.
- Make recommendations that will reduce any disturbance your project could have on wildlife. For instance, don't hold work sessions when birds are building nests or raising young. Or if you plan a stream clean-up, make sure it doesn't occur during spawning season.
- Hold a public presentation. Explain your plans to the school, your community, or town council. Record their suggestions or concerns.
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