Muskoka’s Biodiversity – Part 1: Why is it important?
Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is a term used to describe the variety of life on Earth. It refers to the wide variety of ecosystems and living organisms: animals, plants, their habitats and their genes.
It is an essential part of our environment, enabling our ecosystems to maintain productive soils, clean water, and fresh air. Biodiversity also confers ecosystem resilience, which can help our environment recover from future shocks and changes.
Levels of Biodiversity
Biodiversity can be understood on three interacting levels: ecosystem, species and genetic diversity. In Muskoka, there are several ecosystem types including forests, wetlands, open lands and waterways; this variety of ecosystems is ecosystem diversity.
Species diversity includes all the plants, animals and microorganisms that inhabit each of these ecosystems, as well as link organisms that move between different ecosystems, such as migratory birds, mammals, reptiles, and microorganisms. These organisms, together, carry the broad array of genes that provide for genetic diversity.
Maintaining healthy levels of overall biodiversity is essential if ecosystem goods and services are to be sustained. Ecosystem goods are items such as timber, furs, fish and ‘wild’ foodstuffs that we extract from the environment, while ecosystem services include the provision of high water quality, clean air and healthy soils, and the processing of our domestic, agricultural and industrial wastes.
Resilience versus Redundancy
An ecosystem is said to be disturbed when events occur that impact it negatively – a forest fire, a flood, a clear-cut, or the arrival of a new pathogen are all examples of disturbance.
Biodiversity provides various ‘self-repair’ mechanisms that achieve resilience, allowing an ecosystem to cope with disturbances or change without materially altering its capacity to provide its goods and services.
Genetic diversity can provide resilience through selection, adaptation, and evolution, enabling species to respond to long-term change in environmental conditions (individual trees that survive the Emerald Ash Borer and therefore can continue the species is an example). This resilience can be overpowered by changes which are too extensive, or too rapid.
Species diversity can provide an ecosystem with another type of resilience, because one species can substitute for another in fulfilling specific environmental functions as conditions change in ways that favour some but not other species. Ecosystems with lower species diversity have less redundancy and are less resilient because of it.
The relationships between biodiversity and the resilience of ecosystems in the face of various types of environmental change provide a solid basis for the claim that the conservation of biodiversity is important for continued ecosystem function including its provision of environmental goods and services on which our lives and our economy depend.
Learn more about the importance of biodiversity in Muskoka in the MWC publication Muskoka’s Biodiversity: Understanding our Past to Protect our Future, available at www.muskokawatershed.org. Next week in Muskoka’s Biodiversity – Part 2, we will touch on how Muskoka’s biodiversity is changing and what that might mean for Muskoka’s environment and economy.