Researchers in Ireland and Japan have discovered that predatory species may help mitigate the impact of climate change on biodiversity loss. This highlights the importance of preserving biodiversity in the wake of global warming.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity describes the diversity of species, organisms, and life forms in a particular ecosystem. Bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, humans and microorganisms make up these ecosystems. The diversity of species and life forms helps maintain a healthy balance within these ecosystems. For humans, biodiversity helps provide shelter, food, medicine, and clean water.
Biodiversity describes all levels of life, from individual genes to communities of species, to entire ecosystems such as forests. Biodiversity has sustained life on Earth for billions of years.
Biodiversity is not evenly distributed worldwide, with tropical forest ecosystems (covering less than 10% of the globe) supporting about 90% of the world’s species. Likewise, marine biodiversity is highest in the mid-latitudes of the oceans and along the coasts of the western Pacific.
Only a tiny fraction of the species on Earth have been recorded (about 1.7 million species of plants, animals, and fungi), with an estimated as many as 100 million remaining uncathed. This does not include the different types of bacteria and viruses, which are probably in the billions.
Mass extinctions are not a new phenomenon. In fact, in the past 500 million years, there have been five mass extinctions, with up to 90% of all species on Earth going extinct. However, the rate of extinction we are seeing today is alarming. Scientists estimate that it occurs hundreds of times faster than it occurs naturally, with a mass extinction projected in less than 240 years.
Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity.
Professor David MacDonald, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford
The importance of biodiversity in human life
Currently, 75% of the world’s food supply is provided by just five animal species and dozens of crops. This leaves our food supply vulnerable to diseases and pests. On the contrary, there are tens of thousands of species that are rarely cultivated and which can be a rich source of food while being resistant to diseases and climate change. The loss of biodiversity threatens the survival of this species.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that nature provides $125 trillion in “services” to humanity each year by ensuring clean air, clean water, food, energy, and more. In Europe alone, it is estimated that biodiversity loss costs the continent 3% of its GDP each year.
Without plants, there would be less oxygen to breathe. Without bees, there would be no cross-pollination to grow fruits and nuts. Less visible, coral reefs provide protection from hurricanes, and wild species of crops and animals have adapted to the drought.
Human activities related to housing, agriculture and industry are pushing nature to the brink. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 75% of the land and 66% of ocean environments have been significantly altered by human activity. Moreover, more than a third of the world’s land area and nearly 75% of its fresh water resources are already devoted to agriculture.
Pollution is particularly harmful to marine life, and global trade has contributed to the spread of disease. It is estimated that freshwater animal numbers have declined by 81% since 1970 due to pollution, dams, and water extraction for agriculture.
In its 2018 Living Planet Report, the World Wildlife Fund also estimates that there has been a 60% decline in the numbers of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
The IPBES reports in its 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that one million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction.
One third of the world’s parasites are threatened by climate change. Although they are usually undesirable, their extinction threatens to destabilize entire ecosystems.
How does climate change affect biodiversity?
Scientists from Trinity College Dublin and Hokkaido University in Japan have recreated communities of freshwater organisms in investigative streams in the Tomakomai Experimental Forest in northern Japan. Societies were exposed to heat waves of realistic intensity. A predator (scalpin) was introduced into some communities, while others were saved.
Dr.. Samuel Ross watches the trials at night. Image credit: Trinity College Dublin. (2022). Predatory species help stave off impacts of climate change on biodiversity – new research. Trinity news and events. [online] Available at: https://www.tcd.ie/news_events/articles/predator-species-help-to-buffer-climate-change-impacts-on-biodiversity-new-research/
We found that extinctions of predators can interact with heat waves to further undermine the stability of ecosystems. This highlights how thoroughly the climate and biodiversity crises are, in fact only two sides of the same coin.
Dr.. Samuel Ross, Researcher, Department of Zoology, Trinity College Dublin
Researchers have discovered that heat waves destabilize algal communities in streams so that they begin to resemble each other, indicating a loss of biodiversity. Interestingly, however, this only occurred in communities where scallops were not introduced.
Our work demonstrates how healthy ecological communities can play a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change, and emphasizes how preserving biodiversity is key to ensuring a sustainable future for humanity.
Dr. Jorge Garcia Molinos, Associate Professor, Arctic Research Center, Hokkaido University
References and additional reading
Trinity College Dublin. (2022). Predatory species help stave off climate change impacts on biodiversity – new research. Trinity news and events. [online] Available at:
World Wildlife Fund. What is biodiversity? [online] Available at: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/what-is-biodiversity
World Wildlife Fund. (2018). Living Planet Report 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2018
IPBES. Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. [online] Available at: https://www.ipbes.net/global-assessment
Grechko, M.; (2019). What are mass extinctions and what are their causes? [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/mass-extinction
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