We're all connected.
Biodiversity is a pretty complicated thing. It encompasses everything on this planet; all the different terrains, animals, plants, cities, fish, birds...well..everything! To give it a good scientific sounding definition, we can call it the amount of variety in a particular habitat or ecosystem. But what are those? It simple! A habitat is the natural home of something living and an ecosystem is a collection of many things living together.
There's a staggering amount of ecosystems in the world! Say, for example, let's look at the ecosystem of a forest. Depending on where you live in the world, your idea of a forest might be totally different from someone else reading these exact same words.
If I asked you to picture the rain forest, you're probably thinking of something like the Amazon rainforest right? But did you know that just the term rainforest has both tropical versions and temperate versions? In fact, Alaska, a place that most people associate with permanent snow, has one of the biggest rainforests in North America? If that wasn't enough, there's 10 other categories of forest and those start to blend in with others to make subcategories to the subcategories.
It's all a bit of a knot of connectivity really.
So...we could get incredibly technical very quickly and start discussing the different types of ecosystems just within a particular category and the incredible number of individual habitats within those ecosystems...but let's keep it simple.
A habitat is a home! We all live in houses. For some of us, our homes are isolated in nature and for others their home is surrounded by other homes. Regardless of whether or not you live in a quiet neighborhood, a bustling city, or a secluded mountain top, your home, your habitat exists within it's own ecosystem. The same can be said for any animal or plant in all of nature. They all have a home that has an ideal ecosystem it relies on.
A Habitat is a home.
Even if that home is...selectively accesible.
Ecosystems- Biotic and Abiotic
Like we talked about, there's a staggering amount of ecosystems in the world. Don't worry, we'll get into those eventually, but for now, just keep imagining wherever you live as your own personal habitat and ecosystem. There's two main ideas behind everything in an ecosystem: Biotic factors and Abiotic factors.
These aren't too hard to remember.
Biotic has the root word, 'Bio' in it. Which means life in greek. So something that is 'biotic' is living. Your houseplants, your pets, your family, the critters in the walls, even the inevitable outbreak of fruit flies on the counter are all biotic factors in your ecosystem! YOU are a biotic factor in your ecosystem!
Abiotic is just the opposite. The abiotic factors in an ecosystem or habitat are everything that isn't living. Continuing with the example of our homes as ecosystems, you might immediately think of things like the walls of your home, your appliances, tables, chairs, etc. And you're correct! Those are all abiotic factors in the house. But abiotic factors also include things like the sun, soil, water and even the air we breath!
Got that? Biotic factors are living. Abiotic factors are not. ANY ecosystem or habitat is made up of biotic and abiotic things. Because EVERYTHING on Earth falls into one of these two categories.
Within all of this talk about ecosystems, it's impossible not to talk about ecoregions too. Ecoregions are areas of the world that have unique characteristic setting them apart from others. This term can get mixed up sometimes with ecosystem and is actually a newer terms used in the world of science. It's an attempt to move away from ranked lists of all the different systems and try to define different areas of the world in a much broader, inter-connective sense.
The environmental protection agency has classified North America as having 15 different ecoregions. And, for the most part, you already know all of them! Most Americans, myself included, break North America into a few distinct regions in our minds. Such as the Northeast, New England, The South, The Southwest, The Northwest, California (which most definitely deserves it's own ecoregion), Canada, Alaska, etc. Don't deny it...most Americans just consider Canada and Alaska to be their own unique things. And actually, they're correct when it comes to ecoregions!
Take those ideas about different regions of North America and apply a bit more fancy terminology and you'll still be fairly accurate about the ecoregions defined by the EPA. The EPA has 3 different levels of ecoregions in North America. At level 1, there's 15 distinct regions on the continent. What most Americans consider the 'East' is deemed an Eastern Temperate Forest ecoregion. The same can be applied to the 'Midwest' and even California. Those ecoregions are classified as Great Plains and Mediterrean California respectively.
Now you're probably wondering why regions such as 'New England' or the 'South' aren't classified as their own unique regions. But actually, they are. If we go up into Level II designations the different ecoregions raise to 50 unique areas; New England is no longer simply Eastern Temperate Forests. It becomes divided into Atlantic Highlands and Mixed Wood Plains. The South, gets the same treatment becoming Southeastern US Plains and Mississippi Alluvial and Southeast Coastal Plains.
But wait. It gets even more complicated. If we go to the highest level of designations those numbers triple at 182 ecoregions in North America. But, seeing as how the Environmental Protection Agency is a United States entity, there is a fourth level that even further divides those regions inside of the Continental United States. Trying to memorize where everything is at and where each ecoregion exist is, while possible, not something I'd personally want to be doing on a Sunday afternoon. However, the neatest thing about these ecoregions is that once you've lived and explored in an area long enough, you'll actually create a mind map of these all your own that is shockingly similar to what the EPA scientists have developed.
So why are they important? By dividing this areas into such unique classifications, it allows scientists, developers, conservation groups and even just recreational users to monitor, assess and make decisions that are best for that unique collection of habitats and abiotic factors.
Endemic, Invasive and Keystone Species
Like we just learned, ecoregions are incredibly important because they help us to define the areas that have a biodiversity unique to that region. Which brings us into the idea of species. There's 4 main types of species that most flora and fauna fall under. If a plant or animal exists ONLY within that particular ecosystem or ecoregion then it is considered an endemic species to that place. If a plant or animal naturally makes a habitat within that ecosystem, then it is considered a native species.
Any plant or animal that is only found in a specific ecoregion of the world.
The Sequoia Sempervirens of California and Oregon are unique to the western coast of America and are not found anywhere else in the world.
The classic example often used to explain this is the Galapagos Islands. Which is home to many different species that only exist on those islands. But since we've been talking about North America as an example, let continue on that trend.
Perhaps the most well recognized plant species endemic to North America is the Sequoia Sempervirens of California and Oregon, most commonly called the coastal redwoods. They generally occur in the fog belt ranging from five to thirty-five miles wide along the coast and from 100 to 2,000 ft in elevation. Redwood dominated forests tend to occur in valley bottoms, where there is abundant fog drip,alluvial soils, and periodic floods about every thirty to sixty years. Those conditions only exist in coastal hills of California and Oregon. Nowhere else in the world has the specific requirements to allow redwoods to grow, let alone thrive.
Any species, plant or animal, that is introduced into an ecosystem where it's not normally found. .
Kudzu vines in the southeast regions of America are one such invasive species. It's nicknamed, "The Vine That Ate The South".
So what's an invasive species? Well...that's an easy one! An invasive species is anything that has been introduced or somehow found it's way to a region that it does not normally exist in. Unfortunately, at this point in our natural history, invasive species are pretty much everywhere!
I promise that you can easily find invasive species no matter where you live! In fact, for some of us, it's as easy as looking to our yards. In most parts of the country, common landscaping in homes has all kinds of invasive and non-native species that are beautiful to look at. But, if not carefully monitored, some non-native plant species can prove to be a bit more than a gardener bargained for.
One of the invasive species in North America that was introduced by humans is the kudzu vine. A plant that is native to Asia, primarily Japan, that was brought over to the United States in the late 1880s. In its natural habitat, the kudzu dies back in the winter and is eaten by animals in the warmer months, thus its spread is kept under control. However, in the South, where the plant was introduced, the climate allowed it to not only thrive but spread on a level that has proved impossible to control. Not only does the kudzu grow over a foot a day and can have taproots weighing up to 400 lbs, but it grows by spreading new roots via its vine. Making it extremely difficult to contain.
Keystone species are plants or animals that other populations rely upon. Without these species in abundance and good health, entire ecosystems would collapse. Bees are an excellent example of this. They are vital and irreplaceable for pollination and the health of plants. Without them, plants simply would not produce the foods that most other animals, humans included, rely upon!
Keystone species are the plants or animals that have a disproportionate role in their ecosystem. Without these species, the ripple effect across the ecosystem could destabilize, if not destroy, entire other populations.
We all know that honey bees are involved in the process of pollination which is one of the primary ways plants reproduce. Honey bees are responsible for the movement pollen from one flower to another as they gather nectar. Honey bees also exchange pollen with other honey bees back at the hive as they bump into each other. The pollen that is exchanged in the hive often comes from completely different plants. As the bees then return to the foraging area, they distribute this pollen, which can lead to the process of cross-pollination. Cross pollination, leads to new kinds of plants and genetic diversity in the flora population....which, you guessed it, leads to a greater amount of biodiversity!
Producers, Consumers and Decomposers
Now that we've talked about different kinds of species in ecosystems, it's vital to know that everything on the planet falls into one of 3 categories. Producers, Consumers and Decomposers.
Making the world go round just by being alive.
Eating things for countless millennia and counting. Yep. Even this little guy.
Bringing the dead back to life.
Conservation, Byproducts and Carbon Footprints
The final aspect in biodiversity that we'll talk about is how humans fit into the web of life. Which is...well...complicated. For thousands of years, humans have been manipulating the environment at a whim. Reshaping it to suit their needs without much regard for what happens afterwards. It is only recently that we've seen the long term effects of how humans have changed the world.
This is, to say the least, a simply massive conversation that crosses into political, economics, religion and pretty much every single other aspect of human life. While we'll touch upon this more in other units, for the moment, we're just going to explore three different topics.
As humans use more and more of the world's resources, we cannot ignore the impact that we've made in it. The biggest effect, and arguably the most divisive, is that of our carbon footprint. There's ALL kinds of different approaches to this and an incredible argument over whether or not humans are indeed the contributing factor. Though science can step up and say, "YES!!". But again, we're not getting into that in this unit. A carbon footprint is the measure of carbon dioxide and other carbon based compounds that have been emitted into the atmosphere and environment by human consumption of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are a byproduct of the earth. Things like coal, natural gas and oil are byproducts of nature that humans have learned to use for our own advantages. When we cut down a forest, the wood is the byproduct that we use to build our homes and furniture. Things like our computers, cars, phones even the dishes that we eat off of are all byproducts of man exploiting the environment for his own gain.
Conversation is the attempt to counteract that! Environmental conversation is the effort to protect the environment from further damage and to mitigate or reverse the damages already done by humans. There is hundreds of groups of activist, government organizations and non-profit organizations that are trying to save the areas that make our earth special. It's a delicate balance though. Humans rely on the consumption of the Earth's resources to maintain our way of life.
There's so much more that can be said about these topics...and we will assuredly go there. But this will all be covered later on in other units.