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10 causes of biodiversity loss and its effect on the environment

April 21, 2023
topic:Mass Extinction
tags:#biodiversity loss, #conservation, #endangered species, #climate crisis
by:Gerardo Bandera
Biodiversity loss has far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. Here are its causes and effects on humans and the environment.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth, including the diversity of species, genes and ecosystems. It is the result of billions of years of evolution and is essential for the stability of ecosystems and environmental regulation, such as air purification, carbon sequestration and population control.

However, destructive human activities and the worsening climate crisis are resulting in the loss of this biodiversity through the extinction and endangerment of species, which results in far-reaching consequences for the environment, as well as for human beings. 

The Top 10 Causes of Biodiversity Loss

  1. Habitat loss and fragmentation: The conversion of natural habitats into agricultural land, urban areas and infrastructure development leads to the destruction and fragmentation of habitats, which is the primary cause of biodiversity loss. As humans take over previously wild lands, we reduce the available space for native species to live, feed and reproduce, and also disrupt the connections between different ecosystems.
  2. Climate change: Global warming and the resulting changes in climate patterns have altered habitats, making it challenging for organisms to perform their natural functions or adapt to new conditions. Changes in temperatures or rain patterns, for example, make it different for certain plants to grow or survive, which also affects the species that depend on them.
  3. Overhunting: Overhunting of a species to meet high demand for meat or animal byproducts, for sport, or due to pest control is one of the main drivers of species extinction. Industrialised hunting does not take into account the effects of species deterioration on the rest of the ecosystem and quickly depletes populations. For example, the sharp commercialisation of otter fur in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States and Russia nearly drove the species extinct, which catalysed the secondary effects of losing kelp forests and depleting fish populations.
  4. Overfishing: Industrialised fishing has led to the depletion of highly-demanded species like tuna, whales and salmon to meet the world’s demand. Unsustainable methods of fishing, like bottom trawling, have also destroyed sea-floor habitats, which are important nursery areas for many species. This has had the knock-off effect of changing marine ecosystem structures by increasing the populations of predators at the expense of their prey.
  5. Invasive species: As ecosystems have evolved to maintain a relative stability of species populations, non-native species introduced to new environments can outcompete native species for resources, prey on them, or transmit diseases. When invasive species are at higher levels of the food chain, they can deplete populations of the prey they feed on. Conversely, when invasive species are in the middle or bottom of the food chain, the native species that feed on them may spike in population as they have an abundance of food, which could have repercussions on the rest of the ecosystem.
  6. Pollution: Air, soil and water pollution can harm species by degrading their habitats, physically harming them, or increasing their vulnerability to diseases or predation. Some pollutants, such as pesticides and heavy metals, can be passed up the food chain, therefore contaminating many levels of the ecosystem.
  7. Disease: The spread of infectious diseases, often facilitated by human activities, can devastate wildlife populations. Organisms have developed natural defences against disease-inducing microbes native to their region. However, when human activity contaminates ecosystems with non-native microbes, indigenous species are not equipped to combat them.
  8. Genetic pollution: The release of genetically modified organisms or the hybridization of closely related species can lead to the loss of genetic diversity, which is crucial for species' adaptability and resilience.
  9. Ocean acidification: Increases in carbon dioxide levels are responsible for the acidification of oceans, which makes it difficult for marine organisms, like corals, plankton or shellfish, to maintain their protective coating. The result is a decline in these species’ populations, as well as those of species that rely on them for food and shelter. 
  10. Ecosystem simplification: The conversion of complex, diverse ecosystems into simplified ones, such as monocultures or urban areas, reduces the number of niches available for species and decreases ecosystem resilience.

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The Effects of Biodiversity Loss on the Environment

Biodiversity loss has a cascading effect on ecosystems and the environment, leading to a decline in ecosystem services and reduced resilience to disturbances. Some of the consequences include:

  • Loss of ecosystem stability: Biodiverse ecosystems are more stable and resilient to disruptions such as climate change, disease outbreaks or invasive species. Loss of biodiversity can reduce an ecosystem's ability to recover from these disturbances and increase the risk of ecosystem collapse.
  • Decline in ecosystem services: Healthy, diverse ecosystems provide essential services, such as water and air purification, soil formation pollination, carbon sequestration and climate regulation. Biodiversity loss can impair these services, leading to a decline in environmental quality.
  • Loss of genetic resources: Biodiversity is a reservoir of genetic resources that can be used for the development of new crops, medicines and for cultural expression.
  • Altered biogeochemical cycles: Biodiversity loss can affect the cycling of nutrients, such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, in ecosystems. This can lead to changes in ecosystem productivity, water quality, and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Increased risk of species extinction: The loss of individual species can have cascading effects on other species within the same ecosystem, leading to further declines in biodiversity and increasing the risk of extinction for multiple species.

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How Biodiversity Loss Affects Humans

The loss of biodiversity has significant implications for human health, well-being and economic development. Some of the ways in which biodiversity loss affects humans include:

  • Reduced food security: Biodiversity is essential for food production, as it provides genetic resources for crop and livestock improvement, pollination services and natural pest control. Declining biodiversity can reduce agricultural productivity and increase the vulnerability of food systems to pests, diseases and climate change.
  • Decline in human health: Biodiversity plays a critical role in the development of new medicines, as many pharmaceuticals and homoeopathic remedies are derived from plants or animals. Losing species could mean losing potential sources of new treatments for diseases. Additionally, the decline in ecosystem services, such as water and air purification, can lead to increased exposure to pollutants and pathogens, negatively affecting human health.
  • Economic losses: Biodiversity supports many industries, including agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism. Loss of biodiversity can reduce the productivity and sustainability of these industries, leading to economic losses and reduced employment opportunities.
  • Loss of cultural values: Biodiversity has cultural and spiritual significance for many people, particularly indigenous communities. The loss of species and ecosystems can result in the loss of cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and spiritual connections to nature.
  • Increased vulnerability to natural disasters: Healthy, diverse ecosystems can help protect human communities from natural disasters, such as floods, storms and landslides. Biodiversity loss can reduce the ability of ecosystems to buffer these events, increasing the vulnerability of human settlements to natural disasters.
  • Reduced resilience to climate change: Biodiversity is crucial for ecosystem resilience to climate change. Loss of biodiversity can reduce the capacity of ecosystems to adapt to changing climate conditions, potentially exacerbating the impacts of climate change on human societies.
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Gerardo Bandera
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Deforestation is one of the main forms of habitat loss and fragmentation, reducing the habitable land for many species.
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Ocean acidification engenders coral bleaching, killing coral reefs and affecting the species that depend on them for food and shelter.
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Biodiversity loss decreases environments' resilience to withstand the effects of climate change, such as forest fires.
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