By: Edward Cunningham
Biological diversity—or biodiversity—is the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. It forms the web of life, of which we are an integral part and upon which we so entirely depend. (UNEP, 2020) This includes a wide variety of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi, basically, we are talking about every living thing including ourselves as humans.
Scientists have estimated that there are around 8.7 million species of plants and animals. However, only around 1.2 million species have been identified and described so far, mostly insects. This means that millions of other organisms remain a complete mystery. (National Geographic Society, 2019) This staggering diversification in many respects is still untapped in many regions. It is quite intriguing, as research is showing biodiversity n a global scale. For example, the number of species that exist in single ecosystems, such as a forest, grassland, tundra, or lake. To illustrate, a single grassland can contain a wide range of species, from beetles and snakes to larger animals such as antelopes. Ecosystems that host the most biodiversity tend to have ideal environmental conditions for plant growth, like the warm and wet climate of tropical regions. Ecosystems can also contain species too small to see with the naked eye. For example, if one were to look at samples of soil or water through a microscope it would reveal a whole world of bacteria and other tiny organisms. Despite all this potential, many experts indicate that vast sections of the earth’s biodiversity are disappearing thousands of times faster than the natural background rate of extinction.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the highest levels of terrestrial biodiversity are found in tropical forests, which host over 80 percent of species of terrestrial animals, plants, and fungi. This vast level of interrelations results in a wide array of relationships. When we think about the approximately 1.6 billion people who depend on forests for their livelihood, or that a quarter of all modern medicines come from tropical forest plants, we get a unique appreciation for the struggles being faced by many species. Little wonder, then, that the most defenseless have succumbed to human activity. Yet, deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate, particularly in tropical regions: 7 million hectares of forest, an area roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland (or seven times the landmass of Jamaica), are destroyed every year, particularly in tropical regions and along with it the flora and fauna.
The need to conserve biodiversity is not restricted to the terrestrial environment. Oceans also play a vital role in climate change mitigation and are a source of protein for some 3 billion people. In addition, they contain countless species we know very little about which have the potential to be the source of novel medicines and materials.
Jamaica’s Biodiversity at a glance
Jamaica ranks fifth in the world for the number of endemic species. There are over 8, 000 species on record, the majority of which are plants, along with approximately100 migrant and breeding birds as well as 22 species most of which are bats. The cockpit country, which represents a large portion of the terrestrial area in Jamaica, spanning at least four parishes, is home to many of these endemic species such as the swallowtail butterfly, along with a vast array of plants. One source estimates that 30% of Jamaica’s land area is forest, which provides economic advantages through goods and services for many. As global warming worsens, these seemingly small changes in temperature and precipitation have significant effects on the growth of forests and the health of the ecosystems.
Our Biodiversity is Under Attack
Recently, the UN-IPBES (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) published its landmark report on the global state of biodiversity. Its message is frightening: biodiversity decline is accelerating in every ecosystem on earth. One million species are at risk of extinction. (Schrama and Gorsich, 2019)
The impact of climate change on biodiversity is well documented and reveals that Jamaica faces at least five major threats:
- Increases in temperature on land
- Altered rainfall and runoff patterns
- Sea level rise
- Increase in sea surface temperature
- The altered intensity of hurricanes
All this is of serious concern when we consider, for example, that the cost to protect Jamaica from a one-meter sea-level rise in 1990 was estimated to be US$462 million – what would the cost be today? Can we afford it? What will happen to us if we can’t?
These are significant threats as we think about the numerous reemerging diseases, new emerging diseases, and zoonosis, including Zika, Dengue, and COVID-19. How so?
With climate changes comes impact on biodiversity brought on by, change in species abundance & distribution, migration to higher altitudes, genetic changes in species to new climatic conditions, and change in reproduction timings (life cycle). This would include a shorter generation time for the Aedes aegypti, which requires warm weather to reproduce faster, thus increasing the number of mosquitoes likely to become infected causing subsequent illnesses. Increased sand temperatures, can lead to changes in sex ratios, for example as seen in the reduction of the male turtle population. The problems worsen due to the loss of nesting and feeding habitats particularly for endangered turtle species and crocodiles, as warmer weather impacts the rising sea levels. Moreover, the elimination of coral reefs would have dire consequences. Coral reefs provide habitats and nursery areas for numerous commercially important species
The problems persist, brought on by the drying of ecosystems, leading to loss of species and changes in community composition or changes in species distribution and ecosystem composition. Pollution, climate change, and population growth are all threats to biodiversity. These threats have caused an unprecedented rise in the rate of species extinction. In general, the earth’s biodiversity is in jeopardy due to human consumption and other activities that disturb and even destroy ecosystems.
While the primary biodiversity Goals (Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 14 and 15) seek to conserve and sustainably use the marine and terrestrial environment respectively, all 17 SDGs ultimately depend on healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. The health of our planet ultimately underpins our own health and wellbeing.
How much progress will we make before 2030?