Why Is Biodiversity Important for Ecosystems?

By: William Harris & Austin Henderson  | 
Three cheetahs lounging on the Masai Mara National Reserve
These cheetahs don't have many options when it comes to breeding mates. Serious inbreeding has decreased the gene pool of wild cheetahs and increased their vulnerability to changes in the environment. Anup Shah / Getty Images

When most people think of biodiversity, they think of the plants and animals of the verdant Amazonian rainforests or the natural ecosystems found in tropical seas.

But even a typical house in the suburbs teems with an amazing diversity of life. Spiders, insects and other arthropods crawl in nooks and crannies. Molds, algae and fungi bloom on our foods and in our showers. Grasses and weeds grow in the front yard. And birds and mammals camp out in our attics, eaves and chimneys.


In the home, however, many of us consider that diversity a bad thing and combat it with insecticides, household cleaners, weed killers and exterminators. But on a global scale, why is biodiversity important for ecosystems?

Why Biodiversity Matters

To understand the intrinsic value of biodiversity, we have to think like biologists. Unlike nonscientists, biologists don't think of biodiversity strictly in terms of the number of species found on Earth.

In fact, the variety of living things found across the planet — also known as species diversity or species richness — is just one part of biodiversity. Genetic diversity, which refers to genetic variation within and between populations, has a big role, too.


For example, think about bald eagles in North America. Most bald eagles live in Alaska and British Columbia. Another large population lives in the Gulf States, from Texas and Baja California across to South Carolina and Florida.

The number of genes — discrete units of hereditary information consisting of unique DNA code — found within all North American bald eagles represents their total genetic diversity.

Ecosystem Diversity and Its Importance

Our eagle example also demonstrates another aspect of diversity. The Pacific Northwest represents a unique ecosystem. The Gulf Coast of Florida is another unique ecosystem with different characteristics. Having a rich variety of natural habitats or ecosystems, what biologists call ecosystem diversity, constitutes another important level of biodiversity.

Loss of biodiversity at any individual level may not seem like a big deal — at first. After all, scientists have described and named nearly 2 million species of organisms. They think that life on Earth consists of 10 million species or more. What's the big deal about the loss of biological diversity here and there?

Well, according to evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, species loss may go against biophilia, or the tendency of humans to focus on life and lifelike processes.

If this is true, then contributing to the destruction of the natural world goes against what it means to be human. It also reinforces the notion that we shouldn't deprive future generations of the same diversity of life we enjoy today.


From Genes to Jeans: The Benefits of Biodiversity

Biodiversity conservation comes with a few practical benefits. When a species exhibits great genetic diversity, it has a larger pool of genes available to it. Having more genes makes many species better equipped to respond to changing conditions.

Take cheetahs, for instance. About 10,000 years ago, all but one species of cheetah became extinct, leaving just Acinonyx jubatus in Africa. This population of animals was relatively small, which forced closely related individuals to mate with each other.


Over the years, inbreeding eliminated all of the genetic diversity from wild cheetahs, leaving them vulnerable to sudden changes in their environment, such as the introduction of a new virus that none of them can withstand because they all share the same genetic predispositions.

Humans and Nature's Bounty

Humans, too, benefit from genetic diversity, but we also rely heavily on the great variety of organisms that share the planet with us.

Plants, animals, bacteria and fungi provide raw materials for human use. We base our diets on food crops and the animals that eat them. We clothe ourselves using material derived from plant and animal fibers. We take advantage of single-celled organisms, from bacteria to yeast, to drive important industrial and manufacturing processes.

And then there's medicine. Almost 40 percent of all prescription drugs sold worldwide contain natural compounds found in different animal, fungal and plant species [source: USAID]. Penicillin stands as a classic example of how human health has benefitted from a drug obtained from another organism.


Ecosystem Interactions and Their Global Importance

Perhaps the biggest benefit of biodiversity isn't what compounds an individual species carries in its cells, but how that species fits together and interacts with other species in its ecosystem and how that ecosystem works with other healthy ecosystems across the world.

Take pollination as an example. Plants rely on pollinators — birds, mammals and insects — to help transfer pollen and, ultimately, to create seeds and fruit. Honeybees are an important pollinator, particularly for specialty food crops.


Unfortunately, in 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of up to 90 percent of their hives. Scientists now refer to this as colony collapse disorder, and they worry that crop production in the United States could suffer significantly.

Pollination is just one service provided by the complex interplay of living things. Ecosystem services also purify water, generate fertile soil, break down wastes, help control pests and moderate weather extremes.

Human activity has taken a toll on all of these processes in numerous ways including climate change, and it will continue to cause habitat destruction as the global human population swells to and estimated 9 billion people by 2050.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.