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The Biodiversity Crisis

RAFAEL ZARDOYA

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (CSIC)

The Biodiversity Crisis: scientific and political challenges

For the first time in the history of the planet, one species (ours) is able to alter the global natural balance and cause a new mass extinction. This means governments need to take action with increasing urgency, and the international scientific community needs to be able to act in coordination.

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In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin gave an elegant demonstration of how the astounding biological diversity that surrounds us and of which we are a part is constantly renewed by the evolution of new species from existing ones. Acting at the level of populations, HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Rafael Zardoya
natural selection is the driving force of evolution as it determines which species are best adapted to particular environmental conditions. Those unable to survive optimally in the prevailing conditions end up becoming extinct. The fossil record gives an account of the constant dynamic of replacement of ancestor species by better adapted descendents over the course of the planet’s history. Indeed, it is easy to understand that the species that coexist with us today are just a small fraction of those that have inhabited the Earth over its history, to the extent that it is calculated that 98% of all species known to science are extinct. Apart from this continuous gradual replacement of species, from time to time life on Earth has faced a number of planet-wide mass extinction events. According to the fossil record, since the Cambrian, 542 million years ago, there have been at least five mass extinctions. The most recent, and biggest (although the figures are not conclusive, some authors calculate that approximately 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species disappeared) was in the Permian, 251 million years ago. After each of these events numerous ecological niches were left empty and natural selection worked rapidly to restore the lost level of diversity. However, the new dominant groups (in terms of diversity) do not have to be –and in fact, are not usually– those that dominated before the catastrophe. Everyone knows that at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, an asteroid impact caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs, within the terrestrial vertebrates, and paved the way for the mammals and birds to exploit the opportun­ity to diversify.

Now, for the first time in the history of the planet one species (ours) has the ability to alter the natural balance on a global scale and cause a new mass extinction (at present, around 200 species are disappearing a day, which is 1,000 times the natural extinction rate). Technological progress has allowed the human population to grow at an unprecedented rate. It is estimated that the world’s human population currently stands at around seven billion, with a net daily growth of 95 thousand. Being heterotrophic animals, we need to meet our minimum energy demands (and in the industrialised world they are not just minimum demands) by consuming natural resources. This puts a considerable strain on the environment. Population growth and human “well-being” have been recklessly based on a mistaken view of nature as an inexhaustible source of resources. This has led to its over-exploitation and a blind (but irrational) faith in our species’ capacity to invent our way out of our difficulties. Human activity has such an impact on the planet that it has gone from being local to affecting the global cycles of the elements, water, the climate and biodiversity. For example, so far this year alone, two million hectares of forest have been lost worldwide (equal to a quarter of the area of Spain); desertification has advanced by almost five million hectares (10 times the area of Spain); and global carbon dioxide emissions have topped 13 billion tonnes.

There is therefore a pressing need for decisive action to halt this alarming situation. Stopping the “sixth great extinction” requires, first of all, well grounded knowledge of current biodiversity, its function, and the causes and consequences of its loss. Secondly, this knowledge needs to be used as the launch pad from which to make society aware of the problem and drive the political measures necessary internationally to adapt to and mitigate biodiversity loss.


Cabo Buena Esperanza

The Cape of Good Hope. A biodiversity hotspot. / Photo courtesy of the author.



Scientific challenges
We are at a critical moment for the Earth’s biodiversity, as a direct result of human pressure. Overcoming this challenge will call for improvements in our knowledge of the mechanisms producing and sustaining biological diversity and predict how ecosystems will respond to man-made global change. The science of biodiversity aims to be inclusive and interdisciplinary, combining knowledge of natural history, evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology, and the social sciences. Governments need to act with increasing urgency, the international scientific community needs to be able to work in coordination and focus its efforts on understanding the causes, dimensions and consequences of global biodiversity loss. International programmes, such as DIVERSITAS, aim to make this coordination a reality. The organisation’s 2012 Strategic Plan identifies four major scientific challenges we face in the immediate future:

  1. Identifying critical changes in biodiversity which are harmful and threaten it and produce the knowledge necessary to avoid, limit or mitigate them. The aim is to investigate, through observations, experiments and modelling, the dynamics of biodiversity loss, non-linear processes, thresholds and turning points, considering the different scales of biological organisation, from genes up to ecosystems.
  2. Understanding how management decisions influence the evolutionary and environ­ment processes of biodiversity, and advancing towards a model of effective and sustainable management of current ecosystems, allowing us to connect their functioning with that of ecosystem services. Similarly, exploring new forms of management of complex systems on different scales leading to an improvement in how biodiversity and global ecosystem services adapt to global change.
  3. Understanding the mechanisms of diversification, and how biodiversity is generated and organised at genomic, species, community and ecosystem level on different spatial and tem­poral scales. Determining the causes of changes in global biodiversity, quantifying its current state, distribution and trends. Analyse how human pressure influences these mechanisms and contributes to maintaining or changing biodiversity.
  4. Stepping up efforts to build a community of scientists working on biodiversity in a coordinated and truly global way (in particular including scientists from countries with high levels of biodiversity) and balanced at the discipline level. Fostering interdisciplinarity, developing national and supranational networks and links to political managers.

In short, in order to be able to predict and attenuate the effect of global change on biodiversity and ecosystem ser­vices, the challenge is to understand the structure and functioning of natural systems on temporal and spatial scales never seen before, something which calls for a high level of cohesion across the inter­national scientific community. Given the speed at which species are disappearing, new strategies and tools need to be developed with which to conduct an urgent inventory of biodiversity, particularly in tropical regions, and extreme or little explored environments. Systems to monitor biodiversity on different scales and organisational levels are also needed in order to understand the factors explaining changes in biota and identify regions particularly vulnerable to biodiversity loss. Together these efforts should enable us to improve models predicting biodiversity changes in response to human pressure and to make reliable quantitative projections that are useful to governments when making management decisions.

The huge quantity of data on biodiversity and the environment that is constantly being generated worldwide in different formats raises the challenge of constructing distributed IT-based virtual infrastructures dedicated to ensuring uniform data, and connection between information layers that serve both the international scientific community and government. The existing networks of mobilisation and access to data on taxonomy and species distribution, such as GBIF, and long-term environmental observation systems, such as ILTER, supply information to virtual infrastructures, such as GEOBON, DataONE and LIFEWATCH which, when fully operational, will be responsible for ensuring the preservation, access, inter­operability, use and reuse of uniform multidisciplinary data, and at different scales by the scientific community. They will also provide analysis services accessible to policymakers, managers and other users. Building the infrastructure necessary to confront the challenges of the current biodiversity crisis will call for the active involvement of biodiversity researchers and IT experts to ensure its success over the coming decade.


Fauna de los polos

Polar fauna is particularly affected by climate change. / Photo courtesy of the author.



Political challenges
The consequences of climate change are primarily ecologic­al, but it also has economic, social and energy impacts. To address global change it is necessary both to adapt to it and to implement mitigation measures. This implies policy coordination between countries and decision-making based on scientific know­ledge. This was understood in 1992, when the first United Nations Conference on Envir­onment and Development was held, leading directly to the Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Desertification and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The governing body of the latter is the Conference of the Parties (COP), which has met ten times since 1992. The April 2002 COP meeting in The Hague adopted the so-called 2010 Biological Diversity Target, which proposed “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth.” However, in 2010 there was no alternative but to recognise that the global targets set had not been met. The various indicators show that the degradation of natural habitats (in particular wetlands), the fragmentation of ecosystems, loss of genetic diversity of crops and stock, shrinking populations (in particular tropical vertebrates) and the risk of extinction (for example, amphibians and corals) has not been halted. What is more, problems such as over-exploitation, pollution, climate change, dispersion of exotic invasive species, which are the direct causes of biodiversity loss, have intensified. The actions envisaged have not been carried out mainly as a result of inadequate financing and contradictory policies. We have wasted precious time and worst of all, the predictions for the future are far from promising. The outlook is for a significant reduction in ecosystem services, and there is a real possibility that the combined effects of the various different forms of human pressure irreversibly exceed the thresholds or turning points from which the effect of bio­diversity loss will be vertiginous.

In an attempt to learn from past experience and mistakes, the October 2010 COP meeting in Nagoya, set new strategic objectives with 20 operational targets to be met by 2020, some worldwide, and others at national and regional level. The aim is to at least halt the loss of biodiversity in 2020, if not reduce it. To this end, the assumption is that it is necessary to increase the financial, human and technical resources pledged and mobilised to fulfil the agreement’s strategic plan. For example, it is hoped that by 2020 governments will adopt measures to achieve a sector level of sustainability of production and consumption within safe environmental limits. Among other actions, it proposes to at least halve the rate of natural habitat loss; take pollution down to levels that are not harmful to ecosystem functioning; identify and prioritize invasive exotic species and their routes of introduction, with the control and/or eradication of priority species; ensuring that at least 17 percent of land area and continental waters and 10 percent of marine and coastal areas are protected; restore at least 15 percent of degraded land; and make significant progress on understanding the scientific basis and technologies relating to biodiversity. An additional objective on which work has been underway in recent years is to achieve respect for the trad­itional knowledge and practices of relevant indigenous and local communities for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The 2010 COP approved the Nagoya Protocol, which will regulate future access and fair and equitable participation in the benefits of a genetic resource (and its derivatives) by the parties’ issuing an inter­national certificate including the prior grounded consent and conditions mutually agreed with the local communities.




Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Nagoya 2010. / Photo courtesy of the author.


In Nagoya, this international awareness-raising on the pressing need to halt the biodiversity crisis by means of direct initiatives for conservation and reduction of triggers of its loss crystallised in the proposed creation of an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The platform was formally constituted in Panama in April 2012 and will have its secretariat in Bonn. It is modelled on the Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose fourth assessment report (AR4) in 2007 highlighted the existence of a multitude of un­equivocal scientific evidence of systematic warming of the planet’s climate as a result of human activities. IPBES aims to be an independent point of contact and internationally recognised by the scientific community and policy makers that analyses and synthesises the best multidisciplinary information on biodiversity and ecosystem services in periodic assessments and makes them available to governments for decision making.

Implementing the Nagoya accords in the various countries is a significant challenge. In this regards, Spain took part in the Nagoya COP and took the stance of the European Union, which seeks to foster compliance with the 2020 objectives. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment (MAGRAMA, in its Spanish initials) was responsible for this task, and has backed Law 42/2007, 13 December 2007, on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity through, inter alia, Royal Decree 1274/2011, 16 September 2011, approving the Strategic Plan for Natural Heri­tage and Biodiversity, Royal Decree 139/2011, 4 February 2011, developing the List of Wild Species under Special Protection and the Spanish Catalogue of Threatened Species, and Royal Decree 1628/2011, 14 November 2011, regulating the Spanish List and Catalogue of Exotic Invasive Species. Spain will also shortly be joining IPBES.

As mentioned, life on Earth has always been able to successfully overcome mass biodiversity loss events, but in the subsequent process of regeneration, the previously dominant species (in the case of the present crisis, the human species) tends to come off worse, and may end up becoming extinct. Our legacy for future generations depends on responsible political decisions being made urgently and adequate measures being put in place to miti­gate our impact on the Earth as a system, preventing the point of no return from being passed. It is essential that these actions be based on a sound scientific understanding of how nature operates.

Profile: Rafael Zardoya

Rafael ZardoyaRafael Zardoya is a CSIC research professor at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales [National Museum of Natural Sciences] in Madrid. He has a PhD in Biology from the Madrid Complutense University (1994) and was a postdoctoral researcher at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, under the supervision of Axel Meyer from 1995 to 1997. Since 1999 he has worked at the MNCN-CSIC on the study of molecular markers of phylogenetic relationships in diverse taxonomic groups and the evolutionary mechanisms involved in the generation of biological diversity. He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Systematic Biology, Mitochondrial DNA, BMC Bioinformatics, and Animal Biology and Conservation. He is currently on the DIVERSITAS bioGENESIS international committee and has held various positions of responsibility in the CSIC, being coordinator of the Natural Resources Area from 2008 to 2012.

Published in No. 09


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  • Lychnos. ISSN: 2171-6463 (Spanish print edition),
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