Maintain Biodiversity

From the Foundation's 1997 Annual Report

We live in a time of intense change for biological diversity. Its scientific study flowers as in no other era. New results pour into the scientific literature, documenting ever more intricate and wondrous strands in the web of life, demonstrating a myriad of ways in which the quality of human life as we know it is supported and advanced by the web of life in which we live.

Thus, for example, new results now show that a common, brown, small—altogether plain—lizard species, the Western Fence Lizard, is a crucial piece of armor in our defenses against Lyme's Disease. In Northeastern states, where the lizard is absent, black-legged ticks are infested heavily with the parasitic organism which causes Lyme's Disease in people. Hence when a black-legged tick in Connecticut bites a person, it is highly likely that the person will become infected. Along the west coast of the US, however, where the lizard is present, a much smaller proportion of ticks carries the parasite, and thus the likelihood of infection as a result of a tick bite is much lower. This geographic difference emerges because in the west, many ticks also feed on the lizard and when they do, a special protein in the lizard's blood kills the parasite. Unfortunately, the lizard is absent from the Northeast, and the tick's other principal hosts don't have similar blood protection.

But even as the science of biodiversity progresses, we have entered into a new era of mass extinctions. According to a survey of biological scientists commissioned by the American Museum of Natural History, a majority of US biologists is convinced of this extinction crisis. Another new set of results shows that at least one in every 8 plant species on the planet is under threat of extinction. In some places the risks are even higher, including in the United States, where the estimate is nearly one of every three plant species is at risk. And the crisis extends far beyond plants. From monkeys and apes to frogs to tropical birds to prairie butterflies and freshwater fish, species are coming to the final moments of their time on Earth. As many as one-fifth of all species may disappear within 30 years.

The hastening sweep of extinction gives pause and forces one to ask, with what consequence for humankind? It is inconceivable there will be no effect, but its force and magnitude are uncertain. Even with the rapid pace of biological science, we still know little about several fundamental questions: what fraction of biological diversity—which and how many species—does it take to maintain the ability of an ecosystem to function? How far can an ecosystem be degraded before it loses the ability to clean water, control floods, clean air, regulate climate? Which species possess unanticipated solutions to human problems, like the Western Fence Lizard, above? What part of the human spirit will be eroded when birds, once common, no longer sing?

The extinction clock is ticking so rapidly as we move to the new millenium that there is but one guarantee: children now living will experience the costs of our errors. The foundation's programs in biodiversity are informed by that urgency, and by the unfortunate reality that the problem is global. We have chosen three pathways: First, to focus on a small number of globally-significant ecosystems and to support efforts to maintain ecosystem integrity. Second, to advance broad public understanding of the crucial importance of healthy ecosystems for people's lives and livelihood. Third, to develop economic tools that will bring value to biological diversity and ecosystem function.

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