Biodiversity refers to the diversity, or variety, of living organisms on the planet within a given ecosystem, as well as the variety of ecosystem types. This diversity is indispensable to the dynamic processes that keep ecosystems healthy. The wider the range of species, the more resilient an ecosystem is in the face of stress and disease. At the top of the food chain, humans depend on all beneath us, down to the insects necessary for crop pollination and even microorganisms with which we enjoy symbiotic relationships . Ultimately, each species is of value because of the role that it plays within the greater whole. When a particular species is removed from the equation, its function is no longer performed, ultimately leading to benefits or detriments for other directly related species.A prime example is the introduction of Buddleia davidii, commonly known as butterfly bush, as it is often planted to attract butterflies. Though butterflies lay eggs on the shrub, it provides no nutrition for the hatched caterpillars which are then left to die. Native to Japan but naturalized in the United States with no animal species to keep it in check, this dense shrub spreads rapidly, prohibiting the growth of nutritious native species (e.g. milkweeds, violets, and asters).
A recent study estimated the extinction rate has increased a hundredfold over the last century, and humans seem to be responsible . As we grow in number (the world population is expected to reach more than 10 billion by 2060) we use more resources, leaving fewer for other species. Over-hunting, poaching, pollution, fragmentation and loss of habitat, over-exploitation of biological resources, an increase in invasive species and climate change have all contributed to the rise of the extinction rate.
This sharp decline in biodiversity is affecting every region of the world, threatening the ability of people to find adequate food and clean drinking water, according to a United Nations report. “Earth is losing species at an unsustainable rate—more than 1,000 times the natural speed of evolution. We are losing not only certain species, but the populations of many species are declining .” The scale of impact is such that many scientists advocate defining this as a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, named from anthropo for “man” because human-kind is causing these mass extinctions .
That said, how can each of us play a part in supporting biodiversity for the benefit not only of those other species, but also ourselves? Opportunities exist for involvement on many levels and the choice is, of course, up to each of us. However, it all starts with awareness. Once we become informed, we can then choose how best to become involved, depending on our individual circumstances and resources.
Of the many notable issues, one that stands out to us right now is the “Botany Bill” (HR1054 and S3240), introduced to the House of Representatives in February 2017. The bill is intended to promote botanical research and education to support the land management responsibilities of the Department of the Interior . This includes research funding to develop effective approaches for habitat restoration and directly relates to our red spruce restoration work which is crucial to the survival of the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. If you would like to learn more about what you can do to promote this bill, visit see The Botany Bill’s How to Help page .
Many resources are available for you to become informed about critical environmental issues and legislation. You may already have your favorites, but if not, these websites can help you get started: Govtracks.us, Congress.gov and The Nature Conservancy. If you are just beginning the journey to become a part of the process, don’t get overwhelmed, but instead focus on what calls to you most. One of the things you can do in your daily life is reduce your carbon footprint—even small steps add up and changes in habit pay off exponentially over time. Much of what we have been told about being “green” is simply a marketing strategy, but a truly sustainable lifestyle comes from being intentional in small ways, daily. For example, keep a reusable, BPA-free water bottle with you instead of drinking disposable bottled water. Another important action you can take is speaking up; let your legislators and other key decision makers know what is important to you. Finally, our favorite way to make a difference is by planting native plants, which provide sustenance for native animals, thereby advancing the natural cycles of our ecosystem.
Sources: BBC  Independent  Smithsonian Magazine  The Botany Bill  The Botany Bill, How to Help