Loss of biodiversity

This section looks at a biodiversity definition and a loss of biodiversity definition, causes of loss of biodiversity, loss of biodiversity effectsbiodiversity loss solutions and biodiversity loss facts. The latest biodiversity news is included at the foot of the page.

Biodiversity definition: the totality of genes, species and ecosystems in a defined area. Loss of biodiversity definition: refers to either the ongoing extinction of species at a global level or the local reduction or loss of species in a given habitat. The scale of the problem: in the last 40 years, we have lost 52% of planetary biodiversity & lost 58% of vertebrates on land, sea and air - the vertebrate figure could rise to 66% by 2020.

Time to reflect: Sir David Attenborough reminds us of our 'wonderful world'

Causes of loss of biodiversity

The answer to what causes biodiversity loss in most cases is simple. Mankind. Over 99% of species currently extinction-threatened are so because of human activity.

Natural causes of biodiversity loss

Destruction of habitat: natural forces can act to destroy habitat, species and individual organisms. Obvious examples include volcanic eruptions, floods and fire.


Previous mass extinction events have been associated with asteroid impact.


The same factors can also drive habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation can isolate populations, reduce gene pools and weaken species 'fitness' or ability to survive and reproduce.


Volcanic eruption: a case study

On May 18, 1980, a major volcanic eruption occurred at Mount St. Helens, a volcano located in Skamania County, in the state of Washington, United States. 


An eruption column rose 80,000 feet (24 km; 15 miles) into the atmosphere and deposited ash in 11 U.S. states. Hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland.More than 4,000,000,000 board feet (9,400,000 m3) of timber was damaged or destroyed, mainly by the lateral blast.


Downwind of the volcano, in areas of thick ash accumulation, many agricultural crops, such as wheat, apples, potatoes and alfalfa, were destroyed. As many as 1,500 elk and 5,000 deer were killed, and an estimated 12 million salmon were killed.


In total Mount St. Helens released 24 megatons of thermal energy, 7 of which were a direct result of the blast. This is equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.


Natural climate change: environmental stress applied through heat loss or drought.


Invasive species and disease: species newly introduced through natural means out-compete the local species for resources.

Man-made causes of biodiversity loss

Climate change: see global warming pages. Induced through man-made activities although to provide a balanced view, species can gain environmental advantage or lose it when the climate changes.


Pollution on land, in air and water. Water systems suffer aquatic nutrient load from fertilisers and agricultural by-products. Oceans are seeing rising acidity levels caused by man-made pollutant activity.


Habitat destruction and degradation: mining, agriculture, settlement, industries, highways and construction being primary examples. Degradation casued through poor land use and deforestation.


Habitat fragmentation: fragmentation is one of the most serious causes of erosion of biodiversity. Fragmentation leads to artificially created ‘terrestrial islands’ with microclimatic effects markedly different from those that existed in the large tracks of habitats before fragmentation.


Over-exploitation: overfishing has reduced some commercial fish stocks by more than 90%.


Introduction of invasive (aka 'exotic') species: any species which is not a natural inhabitant of the locality but is deliberately or accidentally introduced into the system may be designated as an exotic species. Native species are subjected to competition for food and space due to the introduction of exotic species.


There are many well-documented extinctions caused by the introduction of exotic species.


The introduction of Nile perch to Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, has driven almost half of the 400 original fish species of the lake to near extinction.


Human overpopulation: humans may be considered the 'worst-case' exotic species for most organisms. Human activity and an increasingly 'consumption-intensive' lifestyle means that future human population growth spells disaster going forward unless attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles change.


Recreational hunting and collecting: hides, skin, tusk, meat, fur, chemical content taken for monetary or aesthetic value or simply ego in the case of hunting with no purpose other than the thrill of the kill.


In the last decade, over one third of African elephants have been killed by hunters and poachers to fuel the ivory trade.


Fashion: fur clothing and reptile skins for bags and accessories are just two of the more obvious fashion-driven pressures on the natural world. 


Medicinal or traditional medicinal demand: traditional medicines often drive significant demand for animal and plant material which can only be obtained by killing the providing lifeform. 


Rhino horn is highly prized in Asian cultures for its claimed medicinal properties. Unfortunately, Rhino poaching is now pushing Rhino populations to the brink of extinction.

How big is the human impact on species loss

Measuring the human impact on biodiversity loss is a challenging question to answer. To provide any credible response requires a good handle on just how many species currently exist (we don't have this - we can only extrapolate based on known but incomplete data).


Biodiversity studies suggest that numbers of organsisms on the planet have declined by more than a half in the last 45 years. The Living Planet Index (LPI) shows a combined decline of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibian numbers of 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.

That's simply jaw-droppingly staggering. So much so the LPI data gets its own section below.


The following alarming extract is taken from the World Wildlife Fund for nature website:


Just to illustrate the degree of biodiversity loss we're facing, let’s take you through one scientific analysis...


The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.*

These experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species will become extinct each year.

If the low estimate of the number of species out there is true - i.e. that there are around 2 million different species on our planet** -  then that means between 200 and 2,000 extinctions occur every year.

But if the upper estimate of species numbers is true - that there are 100 million different species co-existing with us on our planet - then between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year.


*Experts actually call this natural extinction rate the background extinction rate. This simply means the rate of species extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around.

The natural “background” rate of extinction is estimated to be about one to five species per year.

** Between 1.4 and 1.8 million species have already been scientifically identified. 


Wikipedia states that current estimates of species range between 10 and 14 million. With 1.2 million species documented, it means by this measure that 86% of current life on Earth is undocumented.


Biodiversity loss is a planetary scandal - a damning shame on us as a species. Many leading scientists are calling this a mass extinction event - the 6th such event in the planet's history.

THE FACTS: What does the data from the 2016 living planet index (LPI) show? The LPI measures trends in thousands of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe.

Based on population sizes of vertebrate species, the Living Planet Index (LPI) data shows vertebrate numbers have more than halved in little more than 40 years. Find out more about the LPI here. The LPI, which measures trends in thousands of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe shows a decline of 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. If current trends continue, the decline could reach two-thirds by 2020.


Populations of terrestrial species declined by 38 per cent between 1970 and 2012. The majority of Earth’s land area is now modified by humans, which has had a large impact on biodiversity.


However, designated protected areas cover 15.4 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, which is likely to have slowed the decline in the terrestrial index compared to freshwater and marine indices.


The LPI for freshwater species shows the greatest decline, falling 81 per cent between 1970 and 2012. The main threats are habitat loss and degradation for example through direct impacts from dams and unsustainable water extractions, followed by overexploitation.


Marine species populations declined 36 per cent between 1970 and 2012. The majority of the decline in the marine LPI occurred between 1970 and the late 1980s, after which the trend stabilizes.

  Overfishing is the most common threat, and while some fisheries are now showing recovery because of stronger management measures, the majority of the fish stocks that contribute most to global fish catch are now either fully fished or overfished.

The 2016 LPI draws on records of population size over time for:

4,658 monitored populations of 1,678 terrestrial species.
3,324 monitored populations of 881 freshwater species.
6,170 monitored populations of 1,353 marine species.

Loss of biodiversity effects

Biodiversity is said to benefit the planet through 'ecosystem services' which are provided as a result of the interconnected web of life and the way this web interacts with the environment. The natural world can be viewed as being an enormous bank account of capital assets capable of paying life-sustaining dividends indefinitely, but only if the capital is maintained. 


Ecosystem services have been broadly categorised into three streams:

Provisioning services which involve the production of renewable resources, for example food, wood and fresh water.
Regulating services which are those that lessen environmental change, for example climate regulation, pest and disease control.
Cultural services representing human value and enjoyment, for example landscape aesthetics, cultural heritage, outdoor recreation and spiritual significance.

Impact of biodiversity loss on the environment

Food chain impact and ecosystem weakening: biodiversity is the web of life. Reductions in biodiversity damage this delicate web. Some species appear to be "keystones in the arch," supporting entire ecosystems, such as the sea otter in the Pacific coastal ecosystem. When these keystone species disappear, the web of life unravels as complex interrelationships of predator, prey, parasite, or mutual benefit are lost. We also know little about how these complex relationships change as climate change, habitat loss, or other pressures alter ecosystems. It is a reckless gamble to lose, through apathy or greed, something that we might one day realise was vital.


Ecosystem services: while we know a great deal about how many ecosystems function, they involve unfathomable complexity and scale. For example, the breakdown and decomposition of dead organisms and wastes; the recycling of nutrients for new life on land, in rivers, lakes, and streams, and in the oceans; and the regulation of climate.


Consider temperate forests: they serve as sinks for CO2 by storing carbon in trees and soils, thereby helping to mitigate human-caused climate change; maintain the water cycle and precipitation levels, thereby stabilising local climates, through the uptake of water by tree roots, transport through the trees, and evaporation from the leaves back to the atmosphere; reduce soil erosion by dampening the power of rain, and by tree roots binding soils; purify air by filtering particulates and providing chemical reaction sites on leaf surfaces where pollutants can be converted into harmless compounds; purify water by soils acting as massive filters that bind toxic substances . According to some, up to 40% of the world's oxygen is generated by rainforests.


A square kilometer of coastal ecosystem such as mangrove forest can store up to five times more carbon than the equivalent area of mature rainforest. Unfortunately, these coastal systems are being destroyed by human activity three to four times faster than rainforests - this has the effect of reducing the carbon store or increasing the amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the ocean, contributing to climate change and ocean acidification.


Bacteria break down organic material, thus building and fertilising the soil. Wetlands filter pollutants from drinking water. Insects pollinate many of our crop species. Bats, spiders, and other insectivores eat harmful pests. Trees and plants return oxygen to the air. Vast South American forests create rainfall on a continental scale and store carbon as a buffer against global climate change.


If it were ever possible for humankind to artificially duplicate these services, the cost would total trillions of dollars annually, and very likely surpass the value of all the world’s economies combined.

Impact of biodiversity loss on humans

Basic human sustenance: people rely heavily on biodiversity in their day-to-day lives. This reliance is not always obvious or appreciated.


Human health: human health depends massively upon ecosystem products and outputs such as availability of food, fresh water and fuel sources. According to the WWF, about 100 million metric tonnes of aquatic life, including fish, molluscs and crustaceans are taken from the wild every year. Biodiversity of all types of flora and fauna provides insight and knowledge which have huge impacts on health, pharmacological and biological sciences. We harvest an estimated 50,000-70,000 plant species for traditional and modern medicine worldwide.


Traditional medicine continue to play an essential role in health care, especially in primary health care. Traditional medicines are estimated to be used by 60% of the world’s population and in some countries are extensively incorporated into the public health system. Medicinal plant use is the most common medication tool in traditional medicine and complementary medicine worldwide. Medicinal plants are supplied through collection from wild populations and cultivation. Many communities rely on natural products collected from ecosystems for medicinal and cultural purposes, in addition to food.


Although synthetic medicines are available for many purposes, the global need and demand for natural products persists for use as medicinal products and biomedical research that relies on plants, animals and microbes to understand human physiology and to understand and treat human diseases. Forty percent of the prescription medicines dispensed in the United States derive from plants, animals, or microorganisms.


Infectious diseases: human activities are disturbing both the structure and functions of ecosystems and altering native biodiversity. Such disturbances reduce the abundance of some organisms, cause population growth in others, modify the interactions among organisms, and alter the interactions between organisms and their physical and chemical environments. Patterns of infectious diseases are sensitive to these disturbances.


Agriculture: biodiversity plays a crucial role in human nutrition through its influence on world food production, as it ensures the sustainable productivity of soils and provides the genetic resources for all crops, livestock, and marine species harvested for food. Nutritional composition between foods and among varieties/cultivars/breeds of the same food can differ dramatically, affecting micronutrient availability in the diet. Healthy local diets, with adequate average levels of nutrients intake, necessitates maintenance of high biodiversity levels.


According to www.natureserve.org, a mere 20 species provide about 90 percent of the world's food. All major food crops—including corn, wheat, and soybeans—need new genes from the wild to cope with evolving disease and pests. The security of our food supply weakens if wild relatives of these crop species are lost. Relying on single crop strains is folly in an ever-changing environment.


Spiritual and cultural: biodiversity loss and the current state of species decline is a planetary scandal and yet it still fails to instill any significant change in human activity. Mainstream media paying fleeting attention to what is a looming crisis. The separation of spirit from matter seems to be the prevailing philosophical and economic approach in recent times. Aided and abetted by a western-originated capitalist system of excessive greed and consumption without ever questioning the bigger picture. A re-evaluation of human consciousness is being shaped by the major religions of the world, in response to the global environmental crisis. This may have a profound repercussion on the way individuals and their societies perceive the environment, leading to more responsible actions. One can but hope - but we must also remember that action needs to occur at an individual level. We are collectively responsible.

Most indigenous and/or traditional populations inhabit areas of mega-biodiversity. This illustrates the inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity. The very origins of environmental conservation lie buried in ancient cultures found throughout the world.


Business: many industrial materials derive directly from biological sources. These include building materials, fibers, dyes, rubber and oil. Biodiversity is also important to the security of resources such as water, timber, paper, fiber and food.


Leisure and tourism: ecotourism is big business. The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to contribute nearly AUS$6 billion to the country’s economy - according to www.greenbiz.com, counting only the value of tourism, other recreational activities and commercial fishing. Ironically, the reef itself is under severe threat of obliteration. Ocean acidification is taking its toll on this globally iconic natural wonder.

Life on the brink: the IUCN red list of endangered species

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an international organisation that compiles data on endangered animals and places them into different threat categories. Their findings are presented on the IUCN Red List. The IUCN Red List is not just for animals; plants and fungi can become endangered, and are also included on the list.


‘Endangered’ is one of three categories the IUCN uses for species that are threatened with extinction, and one of nine that the IUCN uses to rate all species. In order of severity, these categories are:


Least Concern (LC) No immediate threat to species' survival.
Near Threatened (NT) May be considered threatened in the near future.
Vulnerable (VU) Faces a high risk of endangerment in the medium term.
Endangered (EN) Faces a high risk of extinction in the near future.
Critically Endangered (CR) Faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.
Extinct in the Wild (EW) Captive individuals survive, but there is no free-living, natural population.
Extinct (EX) No way back. The species will never again be seen on Earth.


Two other categories are also used. Not Evaluated (NE) is for species that haven’t yet been studied. Data Deficient (DD) means that insufficient data has been collected.



Biodiversity loss solutions

Government actions to reduce biodiversity loss

2010 was the international year of biodiversity. One might consider what governmental actions have happened in the years since?


Government action can be grouped into the following categories:


Habitat protection and restoration

The UN reports that it is estimated that every country in the world currently has a protected area system. Total protected areas cover around 15% of the global land footprint and 3.5% of the global ocean footprint.


Government committment can be at country and in some cases, regional level. In the European Union, significant habitat protection is delivered through the EU Birds and Habitats directive and through the Natura 2000 network. Stretching over 18 % of the EU’s land area and almost 6 % of its marine territory, the Natura 2000 network is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. It offers a haven to Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.


The crucial point to remember is that biodiversity protection requires more than just designation of natural real estate. It needs effective monitoring and management.


This is where short term political systems may struggle - seeing it through over the longer term. Making actions sustainable.


Tackling wildlife crime

One of the main reasons that a lot of species are facing extinction is the continued illegal hunting and trading of protected animals. According to the WWF, the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal trade behind drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting, worth an estimated £15 billion annually.


International issues, WWF state, need to be addressed on an international level, which is the rationale behind the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), adhered to (currently according to their website) by 183 countries.


International actions have had mixed success. It is recognised in many quarters that conservation battles are being lost with the continued decline of 'charismatic' species such as elephant, tiger and rhino populations. The reality is that wildlife crime is perpetrated by highly sophisticated, organised criminal syndicates supplying a demand largely driven from East-Asia.


Species-level conservation and reintroduction programs

A quick scour of the internet shows that there are numerous case studies of governments acting through associated structures either alone or more commonly in partnership with local communities and independent conservation organisations.


A recent example is the WWF working with the Nepalese government and local citizen scientists to monitor snow leopard populations - a project funded by WWF-UK and USAID.


The challenge facing humanity is that much attention and funding centres around 'flagship' species with media appeal. To be truly effective from a biodiversity standpoint, all endangered species require judicious consideration.


Other agreements in place between nations

United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Ramsar Convention (Wetlands).

Bonn Convention on Migratory Species.

World Heritage Convention (indirectly by protecting biodiversity habitats).

Regional Conventions such as the Apia Convention.

Bilateral agreements such as the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.


Global agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, give "sovereign national rights over biological resources".  The agreements commit countries to "conserve biodiversity", "develop resources for sustainability" and "share the benefits" resulting from their use.



Current legislative issues

Domestication and plant breeding methods are not new, but advances in genetic engineering have led to tighter laws covering distribution of genetically modified organisms, gene patents and process patents.


Governments are currently struggling to decide whether to focus on genes, genomes, or organisms and species.

Uniform approval for use of biodiversity as a legal standard has not been achieved.

Personal actions to reduce biodiversity loss

According to the Nature trust of British Columbia - we can: 


Participate in biodiversity conservation by increasing our knowledge of environmental issues, increasing our awareness of the impacts of biodiversity loss.


Increase support for government policies and actions that conserve our valuable ecosystems.


We can become educators and role models as stewards of the environment by aiding in the recovery of species at risk and preventing other species from becoming at risk.


Habitat stewardship consists of activities that range from enhancing the quality of soil, water, air and other natural resources to monitoring and conserving wildlife species and their habitat by donating or leasing property to a land trust.


Participating in Biodiversity Conservation: Identify locations of critical wildlife habitat for species at risk and the threats to these areas. Where possible, eliminate threats and maintain natural areas. Leave critical wildlife habitat undisturbed, especially nesting and denning sites. Promote wildlife use by setting up bird and bat houses.

Eradicate and control introduced weeds on your property. Keep vehicles on main roads to reduce the spread of weeds and disturbance to wildlife.

Leave native plants undisturbed, and landscape using native trees and vegetation. Native plants are well adapted to local conditions and provide a low maintenance, drought resistant garden and can prevent local flooding.


Attract “good” insects by planting pollen and nectar plants.

Manage livestock grazing to maintain good quality range conditions. Leave some areas ungrazed to determine range characteristics to manage for.

Maintain old standing dead trees and mature forest stands. Large dead trees provide nest cavities for many species and mature forest will be replaced by old growth over time.

Use natural products and methods for pest control; use pesticides that have minimal residual effects such as pyrethrins, insecticidal soaps and dormant oil sprays; use a high-pressure water stream from a hose to control aphids; use barriers and collars around plants to keep pests away.

Monitor and assess your pets’ impact on biodiversity. Some domestic animals, especially cats, are predators of wild animals and can devastate local population of native species. Cats have been estimated to kill tens of millions of birds each year in North America alone.

Learn as much as you can about nature and share your knowledge with others. 

Encourage and support local government initiatives that protect habitat and decrease threats to biodiversity.

Use environmentally friendly products.


Dispose of hazardous material safely. Chemicals that enter the sewer system can contaminate freshwater and ocean ecosystems.

Recycle, reuse and reduce. Recycling decreases pollution by decreasing energy, electricity, and water consumption and the need for landfills.

Drive less, walk, ride or carpool more. Learn about low emission vehicle research and availability.

Biodiversity news

For the latest biodiversity news stories and other environmental news, check out our news page


Biodiversity news published on LiveScience.com.


Biodiversity news published on Mongabay.com.


Biodiversity news, including commentary and archival articles published in ScienceDaily.


Biodiversity, including commentary and archival articles published in the Guardian.






Biodiversity loss facts

99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct

By many experts accounts, we are currently in the middle of the 6th great mass extinction event - named the 'Halocene' extinction.

Extinction rates are estimated to be 1,000-10,000 times higher than would be expected without man's presence

A natural background extinction rate of 5 species lost per year is now looking like anything between 500 and 5,000 species lost every year, largely as a consequence of man's poor planetary stewardship. Upper estimates put the extinction level at between 10,000 and 100,000 species per year.

52% decline in biodiversity since 1970

The total population count of all species has more than halved since 1970. This massive decimation of organsims is now being called 'the Halocene mass extinction'. Is it too late to stop the decline?

30-50% of current species could be extinct or heading towards extinction by 2050

Source: Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427: 145–148.

99% of extinction-threatened species are at risk from human activities

20% of the world's oxygen is generated by the Amazon rainforest

Somewhat distubingly, 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost through human activity since 1970.

Biodiversity News -- ScienceDaily

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