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Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. This includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems, that is, communities of living things and their environments. Biodiversity forms the foundation of the wide variety of ecosystem services that play a part in human well-being. Any decisions that humans make that have an impact on biodiversity will in turn have an impact on human well-being. Biodiversity includes all ecosystems, both managed and unmanaged. It is often thought that biodiversity is only relevant to unmanaged ecosystems such as national parks, wildlands and nature preserves, however, managed ecosystems such as farms, plantations, croplands, aquaculture sites and urban parks also have their own biodiversity.

Measuring biodiversity

Biodiversity is challenging to measure with precision, even though there are various tools and data sources aiming to achieve this. However, precision is not an absolute requirement for understanding the biodiversity of an area and how it changes over time and space. Measures of biodiversity may include species richness (the number of species in an area), functional traits, and the interaction between species such as predation and pollination. There are various ecological indicators that use quantitative data to measure elements of biodiversity, however none of these capture all elements of biodiversity as a whole. Genetic diversity is a way to measure biodiversity. Genes are the basic units of biological information passed on when living organisms reproduce. Different species have different amounts of genes. Some genes are the same for all individuals within a species, while other genes within a species are different amongst individuals. Greater genetic diversity in a species allows the species to better adapt to a changing environment, for example by making organisms more resistant to diseases.

Decreasing biodiversity

Biodiversity is decreasing rapidly due to human actions (and the results of human actions) that are destroying natural habitats, such as pollution, overfishing, overhunting, climate change and land exploitation. Many animal and plant populations have decreased in numbers and/or geographical spread, and human activity has increased the extinction rate of species by at least 100 times compared to the natural rate.

What is being done?

There are efforts around the world to maintain the earth’s biodiversity. For instance, in the U.S., the Endangered Species Act protects around 2,000 endangered organisms. Marine protected areas have been created to preserve marine life – for example, around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where no-fishing zones have been established. Thousands of wilderness areas have been created around the world to help conserve plants, animals and ecosystems. UNESCO runs a World Heritage Site programme that highlights critical areas like the wetland region of the Pantanal in South America. These are only a few examples of the many efforts being made globally to maintain biodiversity.