What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the term used for the incredible variety of life on Earth – from the smallest microbes to the coastal rainforests. Biodiversity includes:

  • Genetic diversity: the variation in genetic characteristics of a species
  • Species diversity: the number and types of different species that inhabit an area or ecosystem
  • Ecosystem diversity: the variety of habitat types or ecosystems found within a landscape

Of all the provinces, BC has the most biodiversity in Canada. Insect species alone number between 50,000 and 70,000. Other species in BC include (at least) 143 mammals, 454 birds, 20 amphibians, 19 reptiles, 2,850 vascular plants, 1,600 lichens, 522 attached algae, and over 10,000 fungi. The great abundance of life found in many of BC’s marine areas rivals the biodiversity of tropical rain forests. Around 7,000 marine species have been identified in the region off the coast of BC, and at least as many unidentified species are believed to exist.

The Importance of Biodiversity

All types of biodiversity are essential to the function of ecosystems and to the continuation of life on earth. Ecosystems that have a high degree of biodiversity with a wide variety of species are more resilient than those that have less biodiversity. The more diverse an ecosystem, the more it can withstand stressors like climate change, disease, or other disturbances.

Biodiversity supports essential ecosystem services, including but not limited to:

  • nutrient cycling;
  • soil formation;
  • hydrological cycling;
  • purification of air and water;
  • climate regulation;
  • pest regulation, and
  • pollination.

Together, these ecosystem services interact to provide the framework for life on earth. The scale and complexity of these services is so enormous that they cannot be replicated by human technology.

Biodiversity also provides important cultural services, such as research, education, recreational and spiritual benefits. Much of our sense of belonging and heritage comes from our relationship with the landscape and biodiversity that surrounds us. The natural world also provides raw materials for virtually all natural and pharmaceutical medicines. Conserving biodiversity means that more species with healing or scientific properties can be protected. Finally, many people also believe that plants and animals have value in and of themselves. This intrinsic value does not depend on any utility for human benefits.

Regional Biodiversity Hotspots

Within biodiversity-rich British Columbia, Vancouver Island is considered a biodiversity hotspot. It is thought that the island, along with Haida Gwaii, provided refuge for species during the last glaciation. Today these islands are home to numerous endemic species, which are those found only in a certain geographical area. Species endemic to Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii include:

  • Vancouver Island Marmot
  • Vancouver Island Water Shrew
  • Queen Charlotte Hairy Woodpecker
  • Queen Charlotte Pine Grosbeak
  • Several subspecies of the Townsend’s Vole

Unfortunately, the narrow geographic range of endemic species can make them vulnerable to decline. Further, many endemic species have not been studied sufficiently to determine their population status. Non-endemic species also face considerable local challenges. Although it supports high levels of biodiversity, southern Vancouver Island is also home to a relatively high number of species at risk. Of the 1,649 species that are extirpated, endangered, threatened, or are of special concern in BC, 210 are in the capital region. These pressures make it even more critical to conserve biodiversity throughout Vancouver Island.

Biodiversity Stressors

Habitat Loss and Degradation

Activities such as urban expansion, logging and shoreline modification modify the landscape so that fewer organisms can survive there.

Invasive Species

Non-native species that aggressively compete with native plants and animals can drastically alter the landscape. Dense plant monocultures, for example, provide little habitat or food for local animals.

Pollution

Chemical and sewage pollution can be directly toxic to many plants and animals, and can modify the oxygen and nutrient content of the air and water.

Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a consortium of hundreds of climate scientists around the world, believe that humans are likely contributing to an overall increase in global temperature. This threatens many animal and plant species that will probably not be able to adapt fast enough.

Over-exploitation

Excessive hunting, fishing and “pest control” can threatened animals such as bison, whales, seals, wolves, ground squirrels and a large percentage of the world’s fish species. Chemicals used to control pest can often harm non-target species, and contaminate food and water.

© Image courtesy of Minette Layne

Resources

Learn more on biodiversity - the library of life.

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