SUFB 074: Assessing Marine Biodiversity for South America

Speak Up For Blue Podcast

Biodiversity is a pretty common buzzword these days when discussing environmental management. You’ve probably seen the word thrown around in articles about the sixth mass extinction, climate change, or even our individual health. The fact is, many conservationists and researchers use the word so frequently we never stop to explain to people without scientific backgrounds why biodiversity is so important.

Biodiversity is essentially a measure of the variety of life. While technically it has a much narrower definition (which you can read more up on here and here), broadly it refers to the number of different organisms on a given scale in a given area. Biodiversity can refer to the number of species on a coral reef. It can also be used to measure the total amount of species on earth. From a management perspective, a more diverse community is usually a more resilient community. To take a comparison from today’s podcast, biological variety is like a diverse portfolio. The more diverse your portfolio is, the better prepared you if one of the individual stocks tanks. While you may not have as much short-term payoff as you would if you invested in just a single stock, you also won’t have as great a risk.

The same holds true for diverse ecosystems. The more species that exist within a given community, habitat, or region, the less likely it is that the entire system will collapse if a single species is removed. It’s basically the ecological equivalent of saying “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” except instead of eggs we’re talking about the future of an entire ecosystem and instead of a basket were talking about a single species of fish.

An article published in the open-access journal PLOS One in 2011 by a team of South American researchers examined levels of biodiversity on both the Atlantic coastal marine ecosystem and the Pacific coastal marine ecosystems. By dividing marine areas across the content into five geographical groups, they found that not only did biodiversity vary between the Atlantic and Pacific, but also between separate areas along a single coastline. Additionally, the authors showed that 75% of the species examined were found in just one of the five regions, and 22% were found only in South America.

Endemic species, or those only found in a single environment or location, are often at greater risk of extinction because there are no other populations that can be brought in to help them recover. Therefore it’s critical that we understand and protect endemic species if we want to preserve and maintain high levels of biodiversity. And while scientists will always tell you they need more data, in this case it’s 100% true. We can’t fully understand the biodiversity of a given system if we don’t have data on what species exist there. This article shows that biodiversity can fluctuate between similar habitats in different geographic locations; that says it’s not enough to always extrapolate a species list for one spot from a similar spot miles away. Rather, we need to keep supporting marine ecosystem monitoring projects in our own backyards if we want to make sure these habitats are protected against future impacts.

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