What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity word cloud

15 June 2017 by David Raffaelli

Over the next few weeks we'll be publishing a number of articles about biodiversity. Biodiversity is a word that covers so many things that its precise meaning can be tricky to pin down. So we asked Professor David Raffaelli, the director of one of our biggest biodiversity research programmes, to give us a bit of background.

Did you know the word 'biodiversity' shot to fame thanks to a group of conservation scientists for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro? The term brought together a myriad of interrelated topics to catch the eyes of politicians. The word did its job - the summit led to a biodiversity convention that committed governments to protecting biodiversity and the Convention on Biological Diversity has now been signed by nearly every country on Earth. Now the word gets used all over the place, but what does it actually mean?

Well, it covers the diversity between every different natural process, species and habitat as well as the diversity within each of those.

Biodiversity covers everything from forest-dwelling fungal spores to savannah-roaming lions, the tadpoles in your garden pond to the seaweed on our shores.

In fact, it covers so many dimensions that so much of natural science is part of it - from forest-dwelling fungal spores to savannah-roaming lions, the tadpoles in your garden pond to the seaweed on our shores. Biodiversity is about how lifeforms and habitats and processes are interconnected and essential to all of us. These many facets are well-reflected in the upcoming contributions to Planet Earth.

Changing tack: A new approach to conserving biodiversity

Despite the promises made at the 1992 Earth Summit, biodiversity at all these levels is disappearing at an alarming rate across the world. Much NERC-funded research has involved the depressing process of documenting the loss of genetic, species and habitat diversity through conversion of land for food production and development, over-exploitation, pollution, and just plain carelessness by deliberately introducing invasive species without thinking through the consequences for native systems. So, recent national and international efforts have taken a different tack. That tack is to look at 'ecosystem services'.


David Raffaelli

Professor David Raffaelli

Ecosystem services are the benefits of natural systems that we all depend on for our health. For example, forests that clean the air and benefit our wellbeing, wildflowers that support bees to pollinate our crops, and hidden deep sea corals that provide safe nurseries for fish we eat. There is now a wealth of evidence to show that biodiversity underpins a range of these services, largely thanks to the major investment that NERC and other research councils have made over the years.

Getting that evidence has real impact because it means governments can raise the funds to protect biodiversity. In just one of many examples, NERC science helped Gabon secure $50 million from international donors to track and evidence the importance of its forests to our atmosphere and climate by capturing carbon. The Convention of Biological Diversity's targets for 2020 have ecosystem services front and centre and in the UK the independent Natural Capital Committee advises the government on using our natural assets sustainably.

Tracking biodiversity for our own protection

Future biodiversity losses will compromise our health and well-being, including our ability to sustain economic growth. We need to find effective ways to monitor the stocks of biodiversity on which the flows of services depend. Exciting developments in this area range from the rapid assessment of local-scale biodiversity at the molecular level using eDNA, through citizen science to collect data on more easily identifiable species, to global coverage in real time using novel Earth observation techniques.

What does it mean to you?

So that's what biodiversity means to scientists and politicians, but what does it mean for everyone else? In a study conducted at the Cairngorms National Park, researchers asked visitors to draw pictures of what was in their heads when they thought about biodiversity. The visitors included, as you might expect, red deer, golden eagles, trees and wildflowers. But they also drew iconic features of the landscape, such as mountains, castles, dry-stone walls and tractors. Their pictures showed representations of solitude and tranquillity, and other features that scientists would not usually include within the term biodiversity.

Clearly, not everyone shares the same idea as to what biodiversity is. This has implications for how scientists advise politicians and how the public respond to policy: do they all have the same thing in mind? If not, then there is a real risk of miscommunication, perhaps later followed by feelings of being misled. Only by involving a broader range of people in our work from all sectors of society - co-producing the science - will we capture the true value of biodiversity in all its dimensions and make better decisions for conserving what society actually wants.

Stay tuned to Planet Earth for more stories about biodiversity in the coming weeks.


Professor David Raffaelli was the Director of NERC's Biodiversity & Ecosystem Service Sustainability programme, which is jointly funded with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). He has now retired and the programme is directed by Professor Piran White. More information can be found on the BESS website - external link.

You may also be interested in the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and UK's 2011 National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) and State of Nature (2016) reports. To read the study conducted with visitors to the Cairngorms National Park, visit ScienceDirect - external link