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Biodiversity & Human Well-being

3. What are the current trends in biodiversity?

    The source document for this Digest states:

    • Across the range of biodiversity measures, current rates of loss exceed those of the historical past by several orders of magnitude and show no indication of slowing.
    • Biodiversity is declining rapidly due to land use change, climate change, invasive species, overexploitation, and pollution. These result from demographic, economic, sociopolitical, cultural, technological, and other indirect drivers.
    • While these drivers vary in their importance among ecosystems and regions, current trends indicate a continuing loss of biodiversity.

    Recent and Current Trends in Biodiversity

    Across the range of biodiversity measures, current rates of change and loss exceed those of the historical past by several orders of magnitude and show no indication of slowing. At large scales, across biogeographic realms and ecosystems (biomes), declines in biodiversity are recorded in all parts of the habitable world. Among well-studied groups of species, extinction rates of organisms are high and increasing (medium certainty), and at local levels both populations and habitats are most commonly found to be in decline. (C4)

    Virtually all of Earth’s ecosystems have now been dramat­ically transformed through human actions. More land was converted to cropland in the 30 years after 1950 than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850 (C26). Between 1960 and 2000, reservoir storage capacity quadrupled (C7.2.4) and, as a result, the amount of water stored behind large dams is estimated to be three to six times the amount held by rivers (C7.3.2). Some 35% of mangroves have been lost in the last two decades in countries where adequate data are available (encompassing about half of the total mangrove area) (C19.2.1). Roughly 20% of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and an additional 20% have been degraded (C19.2.1). Although the most rapid changes in ecosystems are now taking place in developing countries, industrial countries historically experienced comparable changes.

    The biomes with the highest rates of conversion in the last half of the 20th century were temperate, tropical, and flooded grasslands and tropical dry forests (more than 14% lost between 1950 and 1990) (C4.4.3). Areas of particularly rapid change in terrestrial ecosystems over the past two decades include (C28.2):

    • the Amazon basin and Southeast Asia (deforestation and expansion of croplands);
    • Asia (land degradation in drylands); and
    • Bangladesh, Indus Valley, parts of Middle East and Central Asia, and the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa.

    Habitat conversion to agricultural use has affected all biogeographical realms. In all realms (except Oceania and Antarctica), at least a quarter of the area had been converted to other land uses by 1950 (C4.4.4), and in the Indo-Malayan realm almost half of the natural habitat cover had been converted. In the 40 years from 1950 to 1990, habitat conversion has continued in nearly all realms. (See Figure 3.1) The temperate northern realms of the Nearctic and Palearctic are currently extensively cultivated and urbanized; however, the amount of land under cultivation and pasture seems to have stabilized in the Nearctic, with only small increases in the Palearctic in the last 40 years. The decrease in extensification of land under agricultural use in these areas is counterbalanced by intensification of agricultural practices in order to ensure continued food production for expanding human populations (C8, C26). Within the tropics, rates of land conversion to agricultural use range from very high in the Indo-Malayan realm to moderate in the Neotropics and the Afrotropics, where large increases in cropland area have taken place since the 1950s. Australasia has relatively low levels of cultivation and urbanization, but these have also increased in the last 40 years at a similar rate to those of the Neotropics.

    The majority of biomes have been greatly modified. Between 20% and 50% of 9 out of 14 global biomes have been transformed to croplands. Tropical dry forests were the most affected by cultivation between 1950 and 1990, although temperate grasslands, temperate broadleaf forests, and Mediterranean forests each experienced 55% or more conversion prior to 1950. Biomes least affected by cultivation include boreal forests and tundra. (See Figure 3.2) While cultivated lands provide many provisioning services (such as grains, fruits, and meat), habitat conversion to agriculture typically leads to reductions in local native biodiversity (C4.4.3).

    Rates of human conversion among biomes have remained similar over at least the last century. For example, boreal forests had lost very little native habitat cover up to 1950 and have lost only a small additional percentage since then. In contrast, the temperate grasslands biome had lost nearly 70% of its native cover by 1950 and lost an additional 15.4% since then. Two biomes appear to be exceptions to this pattern: Mediterranean forests and temperate broadleaf forests. Both had lost the majority of their native habitats by 1950 but since then have lost less than 2.5% additional habitat. These biomes contain many of the world’s most established cities and most extensive surrounding agricultural development (Europe, the United States, the Mediterranean basin, and China). It is possible that in these biomes the most suitable land for agriculture had already been converted by 1950 (C4.4.3).

    Over the past few hundred years, humans have increased the species extinction rate by as much as three orders of magnitude (medium certainty). This estimate is only of medium certainty because the extent of extinctions of undescribed taxa is unknown, the status of many described species is poorly known, it is difficult to document the final disappearance of very rare species, and there are extinction lags between the impact of a threatening process and the resulting extinction. However, the most definite information, based on recorded extinctions of known species over the past 100 years, indicates extinction rates are around 100 times greater than rates characteristic of species in the fossil record (C4.4.2). Other less direct estimates, some of which model extinctions hundreds of years into the future, estimate extinction rates 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than rates recorded among fossil lineages. (See Figure 3.3)

    Between 12% and 52% of species within well-studied higher taxa are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List. Less than 10% of named species have been assessed in terms of their conservation status. Of those that have, birds have the lowest percentage of threatened species, at 12%. The patterns of threat are broadly similar for mammals and conifers, which have 23% and 25% of species threatened, respectively. The situation with amphibians looks similar, with 32% threatened, but information is more limited, so this may be an underestimate. Cycads have a much higher proportion of threatened species, with 52% globally threatened. In regional assessments, taxonomic groups with the highest proportion of threatened species tended to be those that rely on freshwater habitats (C4.4). Threatened species show continuing declines in conservation status, and species threat rates tend to be highest in the realms with highest species richness (C4.4). (See Figures 3.4 and 3.5)

    Threatened vertebrates are most numerous in the biomes with intermediate levels of habitat conversion. Low-diversity biomes (such as boreal forest and tundra) have low species richness and low threat rates and have experienced little conversion. Very highly converted habitats in the temperate zone had lower richness than tropical biomes, and many species vulnerable to conversion may have gone extinct already. It is in the high-diversity, moderately converted tropical biomes that the greatest number of threatened vertebrates are found (C4.4.3). (See Figure 3.6)

    Among a range of higher taxa, the majority of species are currently in decline. Studies of amphibians globally, African mammals, birds in agricultural lands, British butterflies, Caribbean corals, waterbirds, and fishery species show the majority of species to be declining in range or number. Increasing trends in species can almost always be attributed to management interventions, such as protection in reserves, or to elimination of threats such as overexploitation, or they are species that tend to thrive in human-dominated landscapes (C4.4.1). An aggregate indicator of trends in species populations—the Living Planet Index—uses published data on trends in natural populations of a variety of wild species to identify overall trends in species abundance. Although more balanced sampling would enhance its reliability, the trends are all declining, with the highest rate in freshwater habitats. (See Figure 3.7)

    Genetic diversity has declined globally, particularly among domesticated species (C26.2.1). In cultivated systems, since 1960 there has been a fundamental shift in the pattern of intra-species diversity in farmers’ fields and farming systems as a result of the Green Revolution. Intensification of agricultural systems coupled with specialization by plant breeders and the harmonizing effects of globalization have led to a substantial reduction in the genetic diversity of domesticated plants and animals in agricultural systems. The on-farm losses of genetic diversity of crops have been partially offset by the maintenance of genetic diversity in gene banks. A third of the 6,500 breeds of domesticated animals are threatened with extinction due to their very small population sizes (C26.2). In addition to cultivated systems, the extinction of species and loss of unique populations that has taken place has resulted in the loss of unique genetic diversity contained in those species and populations. This loss reduces overall fitness and adaptive potential, and it limits the prospects for recovery of species whose populations are reduced to low levels (C4.4).

    Globally, the net rate of conversion of some ecosystems has begun to slow, and in some regions ecosystems are returning to more natural states largely due to reductions in the rate of expansion of cultivated land, though in some instances such trends reflect the fact that little habitat remains for further conversion. Generally, opportunities for further expansion of cultivation are diminishing in many regions of the world as the finite proportion of land suitable for intensive agriculture continues to decline (C26.ES). Increased agricultural productivity is also lowering pressures for agricultural expansion. Since 1950, cropland areas in North America, Europe, and China have stabilized, and even decreased in Europe and China (C26.1.1). Cropland areas in the former Soviet Union have decreased since 1960 (C26.1.1). Within temperate and boreal zones, forest cover increased by approximately 3 million hectares per year in the 1990s, although about half of this increase consisted of forest plantations (C21.4.2).

    Translating biodiversity loss between different measures is not simple: rates of change in one biodiversity measure may underestimate or overestimate rates of change in another. The scaling of biodiversity between measures is not simple, and this is especially significant in the relationship between habitat area and species richness. Loss of habitat initially leads to less species loss than might be expected, but depending on how much habitat remains, rates of loss of habitat can underestimate rates of loss of species (C2.2.4, C4.5.1).

    Biotic homogenization, defined as the process whereby species assemblages become increasingly dominated by a small number of widespread species, represents further losses in biodiversity that are often missed when only considering changes in absolute numbers of species. Human activities have both negative and positive impacts on species. The many species that are declining as a result of human activities tend to be replaced by a much smaller number of expanding species that thrive in human-altered environments. The outcome is a more homogenized biosphere with lower species diversity at a global scale. One effect is that in some regions where diversity has been low because of isolation, the species diversity may actually increase—a result of invasions of non-native forms (this is true in continental areas such as the Netherlands as well as on oceanic islands). Recent data also indicate that the many losers and few winners tend to be non-randomly distributed among higher taxa and ecological groups, enhancing homogenization (C4.4).

    While biodiversity loss has been a natural part of the history of Earth’s biota, it has always been countered by origination and, except for rare events, has occurred at extremely slow rates. Currently, however, loss far exceeds origination, and rates are orders of magnitude higher than average rates in the past. Recall that biodiversity loss is not just global extinction, such as that faced by many threatened and endangered species, but declines in genetic, ecosystem, and landscape diversity are considered bio-diversity loss as well. Even if every native species were retained in an ecological preserve, if the majority of the landscape has been converted to high-intensity monoculture cropland systems, then biodiversity has declined significantly. Landscape homogenization is linked to biotic homogenization (C4).

    The patterns of threat and extinction are not evenly distrib-uted among species but tend to be concentrated in particular ecological or taxonomic groups. Ecological traits shared by species facing high extinction risk include high trophic level, low population density, long lifespan, low reproductive rate, and small geographical range size (C4.4.2). The degree of extinction risk also tends to be similar among related species, leading to the likelihood that entire evolutionary radiations can and have been lost. The majority of recorded species extinctions since 1500 have occurred on islands. However, predictions of increasing numbers of future extinctions suggest a significant shift from island to continental areas (C4.4.2).

    Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
     Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
    Chapter 3, p.42

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