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Biodiversity has practically become a by-word for all kinds of environmental or green concepts that sustainability experts, environmental scientists, and ecologists have been tasked to measure. But before we can measure biodiversity, we need a fuller understanding of what it is.
Biodiversity, meaning literally the diversity of living things, encompasses the vibrant range of life on Earth and the interactions between all life-forms. From tiny microbes, to plants, animals, and full ecosystems, in healthy ecosystems, each organism contributes to supporting the overall functioning of natural processes that bring us fresh air, clean water, and sustenance — the “stuff of life” we need to survive.
Unfortunately, factors such as habitat destruction, poaching, and pollution have led to a loss of biodiversity. Human activities undertaken in an unsustainable way — such as deforesting firewood harvesting, overfishing, and intensive farming — are extracting natural resources beyond the capacity of earth’s systems to replace them. This loss is especially troublesome as healthy ecosystems are essential to mitigate climate change, and to enable habitats to rebound and adapt under increasingly intense climate-driven impacts, such as storms and wildfires.
That’s why governing organizations around the world are starting to require businesses to offset their damage to biodiversity. Some require Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) — mandating that businesses improve the environment beyond the state they acquired it in. A sampling of these includes: UN Sustainability Development Goal 15 – Life on Land, EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, U.K. Environment act 2021, and the Endangered Species Act in the U.S.
But to know what has been lost and whether it has been replaced we must measure nature. The challenge is finding efficient ways to measure biodiversity so improvements can be made at the pace needed to match the global challenges we face. To create resilient ecosystems, there are many aspects to consider, from genetic- and species-level diversity to ecosystem diversity, and from local- and regional-scale measurement to evaluations on a global scale (see Figure 1).
Traditional ways of measuring biodiversity make the most sense when we consider diversity at the level of the ecosystems and the variations of species found within, rather than microscopic or macroscopic diversity where the concept of the individual biodiversity unit really breaks down.
Figure 1. Diversity can be found at every scale at which we can consider nature — from genetic diversity to diversity of species, and even diversity of habitats, landscapes, or biomes.
Unlike the recent legislative and regulatory requirements that are being implemented, measuring biodiversity is not new. The first people to put names to the plants, animals, or even habitats around them began the process of monitoring biodiversity.
Since the enlightenment, scientists have been working to formalize the process. From the rigid curation of species by Carl Linnaeus to unification of all life cemented by Charles Darwin’s work “On the Origin of Species,” we have steadily increased our understanding of how, where, and why living things differ from one another. And in the modern era, calculators and computers have allowed us to move from simply counting species to computing the diversity of species statistically.
There are two major goals in measuring biodiversity: cataloguing the variety of life to understand what is where, and measuring the diversity of specific ecosystems or landscapes to track the success or failure of conservation efforts to preserve, restore or create habitats. As the UK’s Royal Society reports, organizations such as nonprofits, private citizen groups, as well as governments and the United Nations Environment Group, have established biodiversity monitoring efforts to support these two efforts.
Fortunately, there is a plethora of measurement approaches to gauging biodiversity, from traditional manual efforts to new technology-driven tools. Diligent taxonomists can identify which of the UK’s 7,000 known species of fly has been captured in their specimen jar with the help of a microscope – and if it’s a new one they’ll excitedly add it to the list! But there are not enough experts in the world to measure the insect diversity of every building site in a single country, and the same is true for all other types of life.
Modern approaches are needed to make the most effective use of our expert’s time. If technology can remove the simple tasks that make up most of an experts work, the expert is freed up to handle the most challenging tasks.
When monitoring a specific site, one of the most time-consuming tasks can be hiking out to visit a site and watching for species for hours at a time. Aspects of this work can be simplified with technology that senses species for you – camara traps that photograph big cats, acoustic recorders — bioacoustics — that capture birdsong 24 hours a day, or environmental DNA monitoring that can tell you every insect that has landed on the petals of a wildflower.
When monitoring is needed at a greater scale, the time spent driving between sites and at sites is being reduced using technology. Satellite and aerial imagery can be used before even visiting a site to gain a broad understanding of the biodiversity present on site and event an understanding of the condition that the habitat is in. Advanced modeling approaches and AI image recognition can be used to further increase the pace at which we can map and measure biodiversity.
Armed with the details of biodiversity surveys, ecologists and other scientists can help businesses, governments, and other organizations to make informed decisions. They can improve the way they manage natural resources, and biodiversity, delivering local benefits that ultimately benefit the planet.
Focused conservation and research projects will take a deeper dive into the details when evaluating an area’s biodiversity. Covering every base enables nuanced understanding supported by rigorous statistical analysis. On the other hand, many projects require accurate assessment but are looking at bigger picture scenarios of where biodiversity can be preserved or restored.
Traditional ecologists measured biodiversity by counting species (species richness) and measuring the degree to which few species dominate an environment (evenness). A monoculture, for example, would have low richness and low evenness.
Within species diversity, ecologists have also considered the genetic diversity of populations when understanding the impact that reduced population size has had on a species. A more diverse ecosystem exhibits species richness, with few species dominating while others are excluded, and its populations are genetically diverse. Thus, the diverse ecosystem can be said to be healthier and more resilient.
When evaluating biodiversity, researchers often work with an index, two examples are:
These measures only require us to define the scope at which we are considering diversity (i.e., a site), and the unit that we are measuring (normally a species).
In theory, we could apply these indices at any scale They were originally designed to explore the variation of letters within words and ecologists have merely borrowed the approach. However, when we try to apply these measures at the genetic level or at the level of the ecosystem, the key concepts break down. The boundaries between one ecosystem and another, or one genotype and another become so blurred that it is difficult to define the unit of measurement. Modern approaches need modern systems of measurement.
Initially, biodiversity measurement began with field observations, and boots-on-the-ground fieldwork will always be essential to fully understanding of biodiversity at any scale. Sampling the environment by recording the trees of the woodland canopy, the flowers of the understory, the nutrients of the soil, and the quality of the water in a woodland stream improves our understanding of an ecosystem with each step. Traditionally, ecologists undertake this by sampling random points within a plot, (plot-based sampling), or sample at points while traversing the site (transect-based sampling).
Many applications will not require the depth of detail generated by sampling approaches. Simplified assessments, mostly conducted remotely with suitable verification in the field, will be suitable for many ecosystem management applications, such as monitoring the encroachment of trees on power lines.
We care about biodiversity because it is central to measuring the ability of the environment to bounce back from damage while maintaining a healthy ecosystem that supports our needs. Measuring biodiversity lets us know where we are — where the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution can be mitigated and improved.
However, we do not have the resources to monitor the environment at the scale needed to address and reverse species loss by using the approaches of the 20th century. Our challenges include:
We don’t have enough ecologists, enough taxonomists, or even the ability to travel to all the ecosystems we hope to measure. The challenges of the 21st century demand a 21st century solution.
Fortunately, new technologies can support limited field staff, freeing their time to focus on decision-making. Satellite imagery and AI analysis solutions, for example, can cost-effectively add speed, accuracy, automation, and insight to biodiversity measurement.
As we understand, more and more, the urgency of measuring and conserving biodiversity, our efforts have extended from local to global and from genetic and species focus to full ecosystem perspectives. And government mandates are making it official.
From the U.N. to individual countries, recommendations and regulations are requiring conservation efforts that are informed by biodiversity measurements.
Many countries now talking about “30 by 30” — ensuring 30% of our natural environment is protected by 2030. To make this happen, we must scale our biodiversity measurement and conservation efforts across large landholdings, across states and countries, across the world. Without the manpower to conduct manual surveys everywhere they are needed, we look to habitat proxies to help us estimate biodiversity. We also look to technologies that can map habitats, like satellites and AI, to supplement and support boots-on-the-ground ecologists.
Measuring biodiversity checks the pulse of ecosystems and provide essential insights into ecosystem resilience and vulnerabilities, and can guide targeted conservation efforts. This assessment is a key to progressing toward conservation and sustainability.
As environments evolve and threats to ecosystems multiply, ways to measure biodiversity must adapt. Continuous innovation and consistency are essential in refining accuracy, scalability, and efficiency of these efforts. Emerging technologies like remote sensing and AI will be important to progressive approaches to biodiversity measurement.