What is the most harmful type of diversity loss?

Colony Collapse Disorder

Western honeybees play a part in the creation of nearly every food product in the supermarket, from the cold cuts in the meat section all the way over to the fruits and vegetables in produce. Over the past few years, however, an issue known as colony collapse disorder has cropped up; now honeybee colonies are vanishing in droves. Scientists aren't exactly sure why it happens, only that it's a big problem in terms of food production unless a solution -- or a suitable replacement pollinator -- is found in a hurry.

Insects and other unassuming organisms serve similarly crucial functions for agriculture and industry, not to mention the fact that many species that wouldn't normally attract much notice have provided the basis for several complex new medicines. Think how much penicillin has changed the world. That came courtesy of a lowly fungus growing on a cantaloupe. What poisonous scorpion, elusive mushroom or delicate orchid is hiding out in some remote or threatened habitat waiting to do the same?

Apart from providing the basis for future miracle drugs, smaller species aerate the soil, creating channels for water to flow and reach thirsty plants; they decompose organic matter, returning valuable nutrients back into circulation; and they help balance their own population numbers by eating one another. Without the unimaginably vast and diverse army of insects, plants, microorganisms, and other easily overlooked species chugging away on the factory floor of our planet, it would be game over pretty quickly.

So what's the most harmful type of diversity loss? To put it another way, the real question might be this: Who's more important -- the big animals near the top of the food chain or all the little guys who populate the bottom? And phrased like that, the smaller and often less impressive species might just come out ahead. Dinosaurs ruled the turf for a time, and then they kicked the bucket. But life went on. Apex predators such as saber-toothed cats and dire wolves grew huge in their day, and you don't see them around anymore. But luckily, even if the planet suffers another mass extinction, as long as enough biodiversity remains among the underdogs, life should be able to pull through and continue into the future.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • 2010 International Year of Biodiversity Web site. http://www.cbd.int/2010/welcome/
  • "Ask the Experts: DeeAnn Reeder on bat research" Bucknell University. Feb. 4, 2010. http://www.bucknell.edu/x58280.xml
  • "Are We Pushing Earth's Environmental Tipping Points?" Scientific American. March 19, 2010. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=are-we-pushing-the-earths-environme-10-03-19
  • "Bee Afraid, Bee Very Afraid." Scientific American. August 14, 2009. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=bee-afraid-bee-very-afraid-09-08-14
  • Carey, Bjorn. "The Perils of Being Huge: Why Large Creatures Go Extinct." Live Science. July 18, 2006. (8/25/2010) http://www.livescience.com/animals/060718_big_animals.html
  • "The Importance of Insects." Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. March 11, 2002. http://www.riverdeep.net/current /2002/03/030402t_insects.jhtml
  • The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  • "The World is Hungry Because the World is Thirsty." Food and Agriculture Organization. 2009. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/art/2009/pphungry-thirsty.pdf
  • Vermaas, Wim. "An Introduction to Photosynthesis and Its Applications." Arizona State University. June 12, 2007. http://photoscience.la.asu.edu/photosyn/education/photointro.html
  • "Why Save Endangered Species?" U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. July 2005. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/Why_Save_Endangered_Species_Brochure.pdf
  • Whitty, Jennifer. "Animal Extinction - the greatest threat to mankind." The Independent. April 30, 2007. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/animal-extinction--the-greatest-threat-to-mankind-397939.html
  • Wilson, Edward and Peter, Francis. "Biodiversity, Volume 1." National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. March 16, 1998. http://books.google.com/books?id=MkUrAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA21&ots=AyXtCAQcps&dq=what's%20worse%20loss%20of%20plant%20diversity%20or%20loss%20of%20animal%20diversity%3F&lr&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • WWF Web site. (7/27/2010) http://www.worldwildlife.org/home.html