Zoologist urges more research on biodiversity


Irish species are dying without ever being catalogued or their role understood, says the Royal Irish Academy

HALF OF all the world’s biodiversity could disappear before the end of the century as species are lost to human development. Ireland, too, is losing species – and at an unknown rate, due to a lack of research funding for biodiversity.

The failure to catalogue Ireland’s biodiversity – its collected animals, birds, plants, insects and bacterial life – means that “species may be lost without us ever knowing of their existence or importance to the ecosystem”, according to an expert statement issued by the Royal Irish Academy’s Life Sciences Committee.

Written by Prof Tom Bolger, professor of zoology at University College Dublin, the statement is one of a series being published by the academy to highlight issues of importance to the wider public.

Entitled Biodiversity in Our Lives, it stresses the importance of biodiversity to our very existence, yet acknowledges the lack of understanding about its vital role.

“Almost every aspect of human wellbeing is dependent on biodiversity,” Bolger writes in the expert statement.

The food we eat and the air we breathe are produced by or dependent on the activities of other species. Bacteria and fungi break down nutrients in the soil, making them available to plant life which in turn feeds the food chain to deliver our meals.

Without plants, our atmosphere would not contain enough oxygen to support animal life. A host of micro-organisms help clean our drinking water and bees provide an invaluable service pollinating the plants that provide us with food. This is quite aside from the presence of other species which “brighten our lives because of the beauty and diversity that they present”, Bolger writes.

These “ecosystem services” are priceless given that they help sustain life on the planet, but their contribution can be boiled down to economic values. On a global scale, they are estimated to be worth €27.5 trillion a year.

The lowly earthworm in Ireland alone has been estimated to contribute up to €723 million a year to the value of livestock production here.

Yet biodiversity loss has become an unsustainable consequence of development, he writes. Habitats are disappearing and with them the species that formerly populated them – and time is running out.

“Unlike essentially all other scientific disciplines, conservation biology is a science with a time limit, with the clock ticking faster as the human population continues to increase.” This makes research into the field very important. “We know relatively little about this diversity.”

We have no idea how many species the planet currently supports. Just two million are classified but estimates of the total range from five to 50 million. About 31,000 species and 117 habitat types have been recorded in Ireland, but we don’t know what else might be out there.

Species come under pressure for a range of reasons including loss of habitat, change of land use, the arrival of invasive non-native species, pollution and climate change. The grey squirrel’s arrival has put the native red squirrel under pressure, and aquatic plant species and the infamous zebra mussel are changing the biodiversity of our waterways.

Bolger suggests a fight-back by taking the “ecosystem approach” developed within the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty aimed at sustaining the rich diversity of life on earth.

It argues that we must protect ecosystem structures while accepting that humans are a part of the ecosystem.

It is essential the knowledge gap be bridged and that more research be conducted to catalogue the diversity. It calls for improved conservation measures to protect against loss of “keystone” species, central to preventing collapse of a habitat.

* PDF of the statement at ria.ie