What Is Biodiversity?

The term biodiversity (from “biological diversity”) refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and can encompass the evolutionary, ecological, and cultural processes that sustain life. 
Red-shanked douc spotted during a field survey in Central Vietnam.

Biodiversity includes not only species we consider rare, threatened, or endangered but also every living thing—from humans to organisms we know little about, such as microbes, fungi, and invertebrates.

At the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, we include humans and human cultural diversity as a part of biodiversity. We use the term “biocultural” to describe the dynamic, continually evolving and interconnected nature of people and place, and the notion that social and biological dimensions are interrelated. This concept recognizes that human use, knowledge, and beliefs influence, and in turn are influenced, by the ecological systems of which human communities are a part. This relationship makes all of biodiversity, including the species, land and seascapes, and the cultural links to the places where we live—be right where we are or in distant lands—important to our wellbeing as they all play a role in maintaining a diverse and healthy planet.

How do we study biodiversity?

Exploration and monitoring

To study biodiversity, scientists conduct expeditions to survey and monitor species, habitats, and their interactions. On these expeditions, scientists ask questions about, measure, and collect data on various dimensions, such as population sizes and trends, distribution and habitat use, and impacts of management or other human activities. From primates in Southeast Asia to flamingos in the Andes, the CBC is engaged in numerous monitoring projects across the globe.

Tools of the trade 

Biodiversity scientists use a variety of tools for collecting and analyzing data at various scales. Landscape monitoring techniques, for instance, use imaging systems such as remote sensing and drones to capture images across an area. Machine learning can be used to identify and count species or classify landscape types captured in these images or in video or audio clips. Mathematical modeling with software such as Maxent enables scientists to model species niches and distributions across these landscapes and predict how they will respond to climate change. New technological advances enhance our ability to monitor biodiversity and implement conservation and management activities.

Read more about the CBC’s Biodiversity Informatics Program to learn how information technology can be used to collect, organize, and analyze biodiversity data.

Synthesizing evidence

The vast knowledge collected through these various methods forms the evidence that decision-makers need to enact effective and sustainable conservation approaches.

Fisherman standing in boat with net

Learn more about our evidence-informed practice by reading about the CBC’s Evidence Initiative.

Building capacity

By strengthening the ability of community leaders, educators, managers, and other professionals to study biodiversity, we improve our ability to effectively manage and conserve the variety of life.

Mary Blair with Vietnamese park rangers posing for photo in Vietnam forest edge
The CBC’s program in Vietnam develops capacity for conservation science through multidisciplinary research training of Vietnamese graduate and undergraduate students, direct training of protected area staff in survey techniques, and co-leading training workshops on improving wildlife trade management.

The CBC’s program in Southeast Asia develops capacity for conservation science through multidisciplinary research training of Vietnames graduate and undergraduate students, direct training of protected area staff in survey techniques, and co-leading training workshops on improving wildlife trade management.

Woman writing on flip charts

The CBC’s Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP) improves training, teaching, and learning in biodiversity conservation with up-to-date, open-access resources for teaching and learning on a range of conservation topics, and by leading training and research initiatives to advance the field of conservation education.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity is important to most aspects of our lives. We value biodiversity for many reasons, some utilitarian, some intrinsic. This means we value biodiversity both for what it provides to humans, and for the value it has in its own right. Utilitarian values include the many basic needs humans obtain from biodiversity such as food, fuel, shelter, and medicine. Further, ecosystems provide crucial services such as pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, and control of agricultural pests. Biodiversity also holds value for potential benefits not yet recognized, such as new medicines and other possible unknown services. Biodiversity has cultural value to humans as well, for spiritual or religious reasons for instance. The intrinsic value of biodiversity refers to its inherent worth, which is independent of its value to anyone or anything else. This is more of a philosophical concept, which can be thought of as the inalienable right to exist. Finally, the value of biodiversity can also be understood through the lens of the relationships we form and strive for with each other and the rest of nature. We may value biodiversity because of how it shapes who we are, our relationships to each other, and social norms. These relational values are part of peoples’ individual or collective sense of wellbeing, responsibility for, and connection with the environment. The different values placed on biodiversity are important because they can influence the conservation decisions people make every day.

Men working together in the field in the Solomon Islands
Garden survey with local partners in Zaira, Solomon Island, assessing soil health and pest abundance and training community rangers in research techniques. 
© Joe McCarter CBC/AMNH

Developing community-based partnerships are crucial for supporting communities in the management and conservation of biodiversity that are vital to their wellbeing.

Threats to Biodiversity

Over the last century, humans have come to dominate the planet, causing rapid ecosystem change and massive loss of biodiversity across the planet. This has led some people to refer to the time we now live in as the “anthropocene.” While the Earth has always experienced changes and extinctions, today they are occurring at an unprecedented rate. Major direct threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and fragmentation, unsustainable resource use, invasive species, pollution, and global climate change. The underlying causes of biodiversity loss, such as a growing human population and overconsumption are often complex and stem from many interrelated factors.

The good news is that it is within our power to change our actions to help ensure the survival of species and the health and integrity of ecological systems. By understanding threats to biodiversity, and how they play out in context, we can be best prepared to manage conservation challenges. The conservation efforts of the last decades have made a significant difference in the state of biodiversity today. Over 100,000 protected areas—including national parks, wildlife refuges, game reserves, and marine protected areas, managed both by governments and local communities—provide habitat for wildlife, and help keep deforestation in check. Other types of conservation actions such as restoration, reintroduction, and the control of invasive species, have also had positive impacts on conservation efforts And these efforts have been bolstered by continuous efforts to improve environmental policies at local, regional, and global scales. It is vitally important that these policies recognize and center local values, needs, and realities to sustainably manage resources for healthy ecological as well as human communities.  By acknowledging the interconnections and feedbacks between people and nature, assessing our existing knowledge, and applying evidence to our conservation decisions, we can develop effective approaches for conservation and sustainability for all life on Earth.