As a researcher at the Academy of Natural Sciences, I am a strong supporter of protecting natural areas and the importance of biodiversity for its own sake. But I know I live in a world where our human society can so easily function without considering the diversity of the estimated two billion species inhabiting the earth with us.
Two billion!! That is twice the population of North, Central and South America combined! Considering the mixture of life on earth, it is quite baffling to consider the influence of humans — one species — on our earth. And it is because of our disproportionate influence that we must look around and consider the two billion species of creatures around us.
This week, the International Panel on Climate Change and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services produced a joint report stating that biodiversity is an often overlooked — but essential — piece to mitigating climate change effects. Protecting biodiversity is needed to increase the resilience of ecosystems to inevitable changes to our natural resources and our human societies. In addition, we must keep seeking ways to cut emissions and store carbon.
But why does it matter that many creatures, often small, lesser known ones, go extinct? Ramon Margalef, one of the world’s greatest ecologists, likened biodiversity to the components of a large machine. There are cogs, belts, wheels, beams, which we can clearly see, and we can understand their functions.
But there are more screws, bolts and nuts than those large, easily observed pieces, and each screw is holding parts of the machine together. We don’t always notice when a screw has fallen out of its place, but it creates invisible weakness in the machine. If a few of these screws fall, we may see the machine fail.
Often we use large, gregarious, well-known animals to promote biodiversity — wolves, whales and polar bears are familiar to us, and we can easily connect to their lives from visits to the zoo and by watching documentaries. We can relate to their experiences, to some extent.
But none of those creatures can thrive without the trillions (gazillions?) of individual bacteria, plants, insects and fungi that are capturing and transforming energy, creating and maintaining habitat. These small actors keep the machine held together, even if it seems they are minor components.
I’m leading a research project on headwaters, biodiversity and climate change, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Headwaters are the small streams present in the hills and mountains throughout the watershed, where rivers begin. They contain unique and disturbance-sensitive species of fishes, aquatic insects and diatoms (single-celled photosynthetic creatures). More importantly, they keep the rest of the watershed supplied with clean water.
As climate change is causing more intense rainstorms in our region, our rivers are changing. How will altered flows and rising temperatures affect our aquatic creatures? How will we know what we have lost if we don’t know what is living there now? What ecosystem functions will be lost with those fishes, insects, crayfish and salamanders at risk of decline from climate change?
These are our questions moving into the project, where our amazing Academy scientists Tanya Dapkey, Danielle Odom, Amanda Chan, Mariena Hurley and Drexel co-ops have completed the first year of sampling. Steven Rier, PhD, at Bloomsburg University is assessing stream metabolism, or how much the stream produces energy (by plants and diatoms) or consumes it (through respiration). These components allow us to understand the structure (what lives there) and function (what they’re doing, how they maintain the system) of our stream ecosystems.
So many of us are hoping that after the pandemic, we can consider how we all need each other. Our essential workers have brought us through, but have historically been unappreciated. We may have developed new relationships with neighbors we barely knew. We have been connected to everyone around the world through this very difficult experience. And nature provided a key service to many of us for being active and getting out of the house.
Can we transfer this connection and appreciation to the known and unknown species sharing our ecosystems? What can we do to protect nature from climate change and increase the chances of existing species to survive? In addition to supporting your local natural history museum and watershed associations, we are doing research to help strengthen protection of headwaters.
We hope you will join us for a discussion about these issues at the next Academy Town Square “Climate Risks From Headwaters to Coast,” in partnership with the Drexel Climate Year Speaker Series. The panel discussion is free and will be on Zoom starting 7 p.m. Thursday, June 24. For more information and to register, visit our website here.
By Stefanie A Kroll, PhD, Academy of Natural Sciences Watershed Ecology Section Leader and Drexel University Assistant Research Professor
Please consider a donation to support the Academy’s efforts to ensure a healthy, sustainable and equitable planet.