Whilst climate change continues to hog the limelight, habitat loss remains the key threat to biodiversity worldwide. And whilst events like the Australian bushfires obviously contribute to habitat loss, its main cause is land clearing, whether for agriculture, cattle grazing, mining or urbanization. No matter how many politicians deny or try to deviate attention from it, scientists have shown time and time again just how threatening habitat loss is to our planet’s biodiversity.
On the surface, the process seems quite simple. Habitat goes away, animals lose shelter and food. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many processes take place below the surface, cascading through an ecosystem. So let’s have a look at the manifold effects of habitat loss, and why it’s the greatest threat to biodiversity today.
The Amazon rainforest, which houses the largest area of intact forest landscape which lies within indigenous lands (Image Credit: David Evers, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of Intact Forest Landscapes (2020) Fa et al., Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2148
Pristine forests remain not only a home for a huge range of biodiversity, they are also important resources for carbon storage, meaning their protection will become crucial as temperatures rise globally. Yet the term ‘pristine forest’ can be subjective. With this in mind, Peter Popatov et al., defined an IFL (Intact Forest Landscape) as a seamless mosaic of forest and associated treeless ecosystems that do not display obvious human activity or fragmentation. These areas are capable of housing entire species, including those that have expansive ranges.
The intent of this paper was to try and determine what proportion of that land intersects with land owned by Indigenous Peoples, to see how significant a role Indigenous Peoples could play in both conservation of biodiversity and the mitigation of climate change.
An immature female blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans) (Image Credit: Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)
Signatures of local adaptation along environmental gradients in a range-expanding damselfly (Ischnura elegans) (2018) Dudaniec et al., Molecular Ecology http://doi:10.1111/mec.14709
Terrestrial organisms aren’t always stationary entities, they often move around the landscape searching for food, potential mates, or more ideal environments. Over time, these movements may introduce the species into new environments, as some change allows the species to expand their historical range.
An interesting aspect of this shifting of the species range is how the organisms at the edge of the distribution are maladapted to the novel environments, as most of the species will be adapted to conditions at the core of the species range. To overcome this, they must adapt to the new conditions. Successful adaptation is dependent on changes in gene frequencies away from the historical genotypes, with an increase in genes that promote survival in the new habitats. The authors in this study used molecular techniques to identify genes that new environments might select for.
Forests such as Białowieska in Poland perform a wide range of functions, but if its biodiversity rises, how will this change? (Image Credit: Jacek Karczmarz, CC BY 3.0)
Biotic homogenization can decrease landscape/scale forest multifunctionality (2016) von der Plas et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113
Any ecosystem performs a multitude of functions, benefiting both the species that live in it and the humans who interact with it, from litter decomposition to resistance of drought to timber production. As such, maintaining high levels of ecosystems is a well-studied concept, and it has been posited that high levels of biodiversity increase the levels functions an ecosystem can perform, or its multifunctionality.
But while the word biodiversity is recklessly bandied about these days, scientifically it’s a somewhat vague term. At an ecosystem level, you may have patches of very high local (or alpha) diversity, but the turnover of species between patches (beta diversity) might be quite low. The variation in types of biodiversity may influence your ecosystem multifunctionality. For instance, patches of high alpha diversity might lead to high levels of functionality in some patches, but little functionality elsewhere, whereas high levels of beta diversity may lead to low levels of functionality, but many functions. This paper investigates relationships between different biodiversity levels and ecosystem multifunctionality.