Earth, Climate & Environment

Biodiversity

Biodiversity or Biological Diversity, sum of all the different species of animals, plants, fungi, and microbial organisms living on Earth and the variety of habitats in which they live. Scientists estimate that upwards of 10 million—and some suggest more than 100 million—different species inhabit the Earth. Each species is adapted to its unique niche in the environment, from the peaks of mountains to the depths of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and from polar ice caps to tropical rain forests.

Biodiversity underlies everything from food production to medical research. Humans the world over use at least 40,000 species of plants and animals on a daily basis. Many people around the world still depend on wild species for some or all of their food, shelter, and clothing. All of our domesticated plants and animals came from wild-living ancestral species. Close to 40 percent of the pharmaceuticals used in the United States are either based on or synthesized from natural compounds found in plants, animals, or microorganisms.

The array of living organisms found in a particular environment together with the physical and environmental factors that affect them is called an ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems are vital to life: They regulate many of the chemical and climatic systems that make available clean air and water and plentiful oxygen. Forests, for example, regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis (the process by which plants use sunlight to create energy), and control rainfall and soil erosion. Ecosystems, in turn, depend on the continued health and vitality of the individual organisms that compose them. Removing just one species from an ecosystem can prevent the ecosystem from operating optimally.

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