What is Biodiversity?

World Atlas of Biodiversity © UNEP-WCMC

The word 'biodiversity' is a contraction of biological diversity. Diversity is a concept which refers to the range of variation or differences among some set of entities; biological diversity thus refers to variety within the living world. The term 'biodiversity' is indeed commonly used to describe the number, variety and variability of living organisms. This very broad usage, embracing many different parameters, is essentially a synonym of 'Life on Earth'.

Management requires measurement, and measures of diversity only become possible when a quantitative value can be ascribed to them and these values can be compared. It is thus necessary to try and disentangle some of the separate elements of which biodiversity is composed.

It has become a widespread practice to define biodiversity in terms of genes, species and ecosystems, corresponding to three fundamental and hierarchically-related levels of biological organisation.

Genetic diversity

This represents the heritable variation within and between populations of organisms. Ultimately, this resides in variations in the sequence of the four base-pairs which, as components of nucleic acids, constitute the genetic code.

Species diversity

Perhaps because the living world is most widely considered in terms of species, biodiversity is very commonly used as a synonym of species diversity, in particular of 'species richness', which is the number of species in a site or habitat. Discussion of global biodiversity is typically presented in terms of global numbers of species in different taxonomic groups. An estimated 1.8 million species have been described to date; estimates for the total number of species existing on earth at present vary from 5 milliion to nearly 100 million. A conservative working estimate suggests there might be around 12.5 million. In terms of species numbers alone, life on earth appears to consist essentially of insects and microorganisms.

Ecosystem diversity

The quantitative assessment of diversity at the ecosystem, habitat or community level remains problematic. Whilst it is possible to define what is in principle meant by genetic and species diversity, and to produce various measures thereof, there is no unique definition and classification of ecosystems at the global level, and it is thus difficult in practice to assess ecosystem diversity other than on a local or regional basis and then only largely in terms of vegetation. Ecosystems further differ from genes and species in that they explicitly include abiotic components, being partly determined by soil parent material and climate.