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The assessment of biodiversity, the rich mosaic of life encompassing genes to entire ecosystems, is a complex undertaking. Intricate landscapes, sheltering an enormous diversity of biological life, demand a variety of ways to measure biodiversity and decode the richness of life on our planet.
Fortunately, there is a plethora of measurement approaches for gauging biodiversity, from traditional manual efforts to new technology-driven tools. Diligent taxonomists have the skills to 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. But there are not enough experts in the world to measure the insect diversity of every building site in even a single country, and the same is true for all other types of life.
Scientists and researchers who seek to quantify biodiversity start by counting species and individuals within specific locations. The choice of what to count and where hinges on what researchers need to determine and scientific questions at hand. Whether examining microscopic organisms in soil or studying the diversity of trees surrounding an electric utility’s right of way, the scale and selection of observation are pivotal.
As we increase the scale at which we must measure biodiversity, trade-offs have had to be made about what to measure (the breadth of measurement approaches), how intensely we measure it (the number of samples), how specific our measurements must be (the taxonomic level of classification). But modern approaches may help ecologists scale their work without sacrificing so much. Modern approaches are needed to make the most effective use of our experts’ time. If technology can remove the simple tasks that make up most of an expert’s work, the expert is freed up to analyze and make recommendations for action.
Species evenness and richness are key facets of biodiversity measurement.
Species richness, a fundamental metric, tallies the total count of different species within a given habitat, regardless of the number of individuals. Even in small area the richness of species can be astounding — as discovered during Terry Erwin’s studies on the diversity of insects, where over 1,000 species of beetles were collected from a rainforest’s tree canopy alone. However, species richness alone cannot indicate whether an ecosystem contains healthy populations of many species, or whether one species — such an invasive weed — is dominating at the expense of others. That is why species evenness is crucial in evaluating the diversity of species. Biodiversity not only accounts for the number of species but also considers the abundance of each. In a healthy, resilient ecosystem, no single species should dominate at the expense of others.
Diversity patterns can be evaluated using indices, such as the Simpson Diversity Index and the Shannon-Wiener Diversity Index. Both look at richness and evenness but Simpson’s focuses on common species, while Shannon Wiener’s emphasizes rare species.
When monitoring a specific site, one of the most time-consuming tasks can be hiking out to visit a site and looking for species for hours at a time. Aspects of this work can be simplified with technology that senses species for you — camera traps that photograph big cats, acoustic recorders that capture birdsong 24 hours a day, or environmental DNA monitoring that tell you every insect that has landed on the petals of a wildflower, for example.
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 even 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.
Regional or national responses to the biodiversity loss crisis will need to consider protecting a diversity of habitats, landscapes, and ecoregions in their territory. Considering the value of a species or habitat in a wider context becomes essential. For example, the Reddish Buff Moth (Acosmetia caliginosa) is endemic to the British Isles, and the entire population now appears to be confined to a single location on the Isle of Wigth. Maximizing biodiversity means not only ensuring that a single site has healthy populations of many species, but also encouraging a diversity of ecosystems that support species requiring specific conditions to thrive. To truly maximize biodiversity, international collaboration and information sharing is required at a scale that we have never seen before. This comparative method reveals trends, shedding light on why certain areas flourish with diversity while others witness a decline.
As we navigate through biodiversity measurement approaches, it is imperative to acknowledge the urgency in preserving this tapestry of life. Human activities continue to unravel this delicate web at an alarming rate. Now is the time to embrace technologies and approaches that will speed our understanding of biodiversity and how its loss affects ecosystems.