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magazine / jun10

June 2010 issue

Biodiversity: What is biodiversity?

Reading the Ripples  

The International Year of Biodiversity is an invitation to take stock of our ingenious yet imperiled life-forms, from the clockwork of genes to the wild rumpus of ecosystems.

By Candace Savage
Birders visit Amherst Island, near Kingston, Ont., throughout the year to spot a diverse population of snowy, long-eared and great horned owls.
Photo: Ben Nelms
Video Watch a video introducing the International Year of Biodiversity.

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Multimedia Discover videos, interactive features and photos on the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
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  • What is Biodiversity?

    The word invokes the splendour of our world. In 2010 we celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity, yet many living things are in imminent danger of going extinct. Read more »
  • Clayoquot Sound

    Biosphere Reserves such as Clayoquot Sound aim to prove that rich natural environments go hand-in-hand with vibrant economies. Read more »
  • Citizen Science

    From studying slugs to searching for swans and monitoring pine martens, citizen scientists keep watch over our changing world. Read more »
  • 50 Million Trees

    Ontario has an ambitious plan to reforest the most populated part of Canada. But first it must grapple with landowners and fragmented landscapes. Read more »
  • Goodbye Tallgrass Prairie

    Once covering 6,000 square kilometres in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, the tallgrass prairie has all but vanished from the Canadian landscape.
    Read more »
  • Invasive Species

    Are “invasive” species hitching rides to new habitats all that bad for our ecosystems?
    Read more »
  • Freegan Living

    Gerard Daechsel lives as a freegan, an anti-consumerist who forages necessities from what others throw away.
    Read more »
  • The Jordan Basin

    Six years ago, an ecologically rich wedge of ocean in the northern Gulf of Maine became Canada’s first marine biodiversity showcase. Has it lived up to its promise? Read more »
  • Multimedia

    Discover videos, interactive features and photo essays mapping the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
    View now »

“Biodiversity” is an attempt to invoke the splendour of the living world with a single word. Just six syllables but they flood the mind with images: fish, bright as petals, dart through a coral reef; herds of caribou stream across frozen lakes; bees thrum, wings beat, buds burst with greenery. This miracle planet teems with living things.

International Year of Biodiversity
Learn more about the International Year of Biodiversity.

The United Nations-declared International Year of Biodiversity extends an invitation to celebrate this panoply of protoplasmic inventions, the only life, so far as we know, in the cosmos. Think of it: an infinity of rock and dust, and in the midst of nothingness, one mid-sized blue planet, with more than 1,400,000 different species squiggling around on it. Although it is difficult to be certain, life is probably richer and more diverse at present than at any other time in the long history of Earth. Lucky us, to be alive at just the right moment.

When extinction outpaces innovation, the losses quickly mount.

If only our luck could hold a little longer. If only we didn’t know that the runaway demands of a single species, Homo sapiens, are increasingly being met at the expense of the intricate life going on around us.

Biodiversity is usually assessed at three conceptually separate but intersecting layers, using different measures. At present, all of the measures suggest we are headed for trouble. Take the number of species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, 12 percent of all the birds in the world, 21 percent of mammals and 30 percent of amphibians are in imminent danger of going extinct. A majority of predatory marine fish are also on the brink. What does it do to our hearts to know that our burgeoning population and gotta-haveit entitlements have already pushed more than 17,291 species to the limits?


Will life go on without the Pacific population of the basking shark or the spiky blossoms of the pink milkwort, both endangered in Canada? Without a doubt, it will. Extinction is as inevitable as death and just as natural. You could even see it as a good thing, since it opens up space for new species to evolve. But when extinction outpaces innovation, the losses quickly mount. Food webs are weakened and genetic resources are lost, with consequences that reverberate long into the future.

This brings us to the second layer of biodiversity assessment: genetic variability. With rare exceptions, every organism is genetically unique so the more individuals a species can muster, the more genetic resources it has. Similarly, local populations often become adapted to local conditions (wild roses that grow on the prairies are subtly different than those on the forest fringe) and each variation adds to the species’ genetic vocabulary. The more genetically diverse a species is — the more possibilities are encoded in its DNA — the more likely it is to respond successfully to future change. Tragically, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index indicates that, globally, vertebrate species are diminishing in both population and range, an indirect indication that their genetic inheritance is eroding.

The cumulative effect of these losses, whether of species or genes, is to reduce the adaptive capacity — the creativity — of the living world. It is at this third level of complexity, where we take in the whole, wild rumpus of life at a single glance, that the importance of biodiversity to humankind becomes most vivid. Ecosystems, such as forests, rangelands and rivers, all provide life-sustaining goods and services to humanity, including pollination, fertile soil, clean water, pure food and a breathable atmosphere, to say nothing of inspiration and spiritual renewal. The more species that can fulfill each of these functions, the more secure our future will be. We don’t even want to think about the corollary.

Protecting biodiversity will bring solace not only to us but to our children and theirs for generations to come. Let the beauty slip away? Leave a legacy of ruin and loss? Just six syllables: It’s not an option.

Candace Savage, a regular contributor to this magazine, is a writer based in Saskatoon.

Related content and resources:
Photo Club
View a gallery of Eamon Mac Mahon’s photos of Canada’s forests and read a one-on-one interview with the photographer.
The International Year of Biodiversity
Learn more about the International Year of Biodiversity and what you can do to contribute to this U.N. initiative.
50 Million Trees
Get involved in your community with Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program. Donate or organize your own plant, because every tree counts.
Return to the Wild
Explore and learn more about the diversity of Canada’s wildlife in the Return to the Wild project.

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Comments on this articleView all comments (13) | Leave a comment

Teachers and environmental outreach coordinators can run their own Citizen Science project using free online tools at

Submitted by Paul on Friday, March 25, 2016

Citizen scientist can submit wildlife and plant sightings into community database at 'Wildlife & Plant Sightings'

Sightings data are organized into basic reports and easily searchable.

Amateur to professional can contrinute their citizen science here.

Submitted by Paul Lindgreen on Monday, January 24, 2011

This story requires the eyes of an ornithologist on the water counting birds. Birds as indicators tell us about the world below. Having just returned from the Jordan Basin region I can attest to the rich Biodiversity that I saw as I counted birds. Dovekie, N. Fulmar, Greater Shearwater..... This Bioregion is important to both the United States and Canada. It behooves all of us to work together diligently to understand this region of the Ocean. Remember also that it is our RIVER Ecosystems connected to the Gulf of Maine that ultimately determine the biodiversity of the GOM.
Pollution in the GOM is a death sentence. Dioxins and mercury must be removed from the Penobscot River and all streams and culverts must be reconnected to the SEA-RUN FISH.. These are the Keystone Species of the GOM and determine the Health of both the United States and Canadian people.

Submitted by Michael J. Good, MS on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good article, but most professional foresters will recongnize that most of the photos do not depict an old growth forests, but a variety of second growth or fire-origin sites.

Submitted by collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

With respect to the statistics Candace quotes from the Int'l Union for Conservation of Nature Red List Is it 12% of all birds or 12% of all species of birds. Quite a different number I would think.

Submitted by Collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

The excellent article by Fraser Los entitled “50 million trees” is welcome. While the article focuses on Ontario Government plans to reforest Southern Ontario the author also mentions efforts being undertaken in Northern Ontario. To expand on these remarks…

The Forest Health and Silvicultural Section of the Ministry of Natural Resources advises “in 2008, approximately 92 million trees were planted in Ontario, with 49.8 million of these in the Northwest Region”. Survival rates for Pine Spruce are typically 80 to 85% in the Thunder Bay area and are affected by lack of rain, higher temperatures and frost. Tree plant numbers for 2009 will be available in March 2011.

As one flies or takes a survol by Google over the vast expanse of Northern Ontario, one can’t help but wonder about the sustainability of the Boreal Forest. For example, in some areas notably near the Ogoki reservoir, there are any number of 10,000 hectare clearcuts. Huge areas are unplanted and without sufficient seed trees left standing for natural regeneration. Considerable piles of over cut and uncollected wood lie north of Armstrong. As forest tenure is being renogiated, often with the same companies that have left this mess, Northerners can’t help but wonder if there will be any improvement?

Also, the deplorable conditions experienced by many tree planters, mosty Canadian students, needs examining. Migrant workers picking crops in Southern Ontario have much better accommodation, food and standards than experienced by northern tree planters who are often forced to work in cold rain and snow while sleeping in tents. Certainly miracle planters might attain 5,000 trees under ideal conditions, however most struggle to plant 1,000 or 2,000 trees to meet their camp costs, clothing, travel and to have meagre savings for education.

A article on the future of the Boreal Forest and sustainable forestry in Northern Ontario would be welcome.

Submitted by Paul Filteau on Friday, June 18, 2010

Evolution happens with or without our consent or assistance. Yet it's hard to see the good in some of the growing numbers of invasive plant species. Good article, thanks.

Submitted by Tina on Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Informative and well-written article. Nice to see attention being paid to this important, though sadly neglected, issue in Manitoba.

Submitted by Tom Penner on Friday, May 28, 2010

Here is a slideshow from this year's Guelph Rotary Forest tree planting at wich about 1,000 people helped plant trees:

Submitted by Janet Baine on Thursday, May 27, 2010

We should cherish and protect the old-growth rain forests and what's left around us.

Submitted by james on Thursday, May 27, 2010

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