Exploring Biodiversity

The value of biodiversity is that it makes our ecosystems more resilient, which is a prerequisite for stable societies; its wanton destruction is akin to setting fire to our lifeboat.

Johan Rockstrom

What is biodiversity?

The term biodiversity refers to the multitude of living species on Earth and their incredible variations. There are no exclusions for organisms when describing total global biodiversity, meaning organisms from all three domains of life are included. These domains are referred to as Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The relationships of these groups can be seen in the image below.

The three domains of life: Eukarya, Archaea, and Bacteria.

Members of Eukarya include eukaryotic organisms such as plants, animals, protists, and fungi. Archaea includes organisms such as retroviruses, and bacteria includes microbes such as E. Coli (a common cause of food poisoning). Archaea are unicellular organisms that lack a true nucleus (organelle that contains the genetic information of an individual), which distinguishes them from their nucleated counterparts Eukarya and Bacteria. Despite sharing similarities when compared to Archaea, members of Eukarya differ from Bacteria as these organisms are multicellular and have their organelles (functional parts of the cell) surrounded in individual membranes. Members of Archaea are commonly represented by those organisms that live in extreme conditions such as in the Dead Sea (‘salt-loving’ halophiles) or in volcanoes (‘heat-loving’ thermophiles).

Depending on the ecological system being described or studied, the scope of biodiversity might be confined to a particular location or groups of locations. When we describe the biodiversity of organisms at one particular location, we refer to this as an assessment of alpha diversity (α diversity). This measurement is particularly useful for understanding what mixture of species are present within an area.

For example, if you were to measure the alpha diversity of a park in city of Chicago, you may include up to a mixture of 155 species of birds depending on the location of the park, numerous insect species, plant species, etc. Regardless of the type of species, because we have established our area of study as the park, every living species within the park will be included in the alpha diversity assessment.

(C) Penn State | Insect Biodiversity Center

When multiple locations are taken into consideration, this becomes what is considered a beta-diversity (β diversity) assessment. This type of assessment can be incredibly useful when assessing large regions for biodiversity. For example, β diversity is beneficial for assessing the biodiversity of a country, or a large region of land such as a state. In this application, alpha assessments are taken at many different habitats, and compiled in a beta diversity application.

The scenarios given above for α and β diversities involve looking at an ecosystem level. These terms can, however, be applied to smaller scales, for instance looking at the biodiversity among a certain species (either from observable characteristic or genetic differences).

The video below is a great example at looking at species diversity within ants in the Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique, Africa).


How does biodiversity arise?

Within every organism, there is a sequence of genetic information that makes up every characteristic of that individual. From time to time, sequences must copy themselves in order to create new cells or pass on genetic information. A nature-made machine, editing enzymes are not perfect and occasionally make errors. These mistakes involve either adding in a base pair that doesn’t below (e.g., AATCG becomes AATGCG), removing a base pair altogether (e.g., ACGT becomes AGT), or swapping one base pair with another (e.g., ACCT becomes ACCG). Changes such as these can be fatal depending on the location of the change, or can have no effect on function. Occasionally, errors (also known as mutations) can alter a function within the organism without being fatal, resulting in a change of a visible characteristic. If these mutations are heritable (or within the cells to be used during fertilization), they can be passed on to new generations.

With new genetic potential, if a particular change in function is beneficial to an organism, these characteristics boost this individual’s chance for survival–heightening its chance of passing along this beneficial mutation to more offspring. Over time, accumulation of desirable characteristics in a population begin to shift the genetic pool available during mating events. Through directional selection, or a movement toward a beneficial trait in a population, these organisms become more similar to each other at the sequence where the mutation occurred. Errors in sequencing will continue over time, and those that occur in heritable cells (sperm, egg, etc.) might allow for survival against a new environmental factor, contributing to further shifting in genomic patterns and eventually allowing for the possibility of a new species with unique traits to emerge.

With enough geographic isolation or lack of gene immigration from outside populations, mutations in a population accumulate and eventually can cause populations of what were once the same species to now be genetically distinct enough to be considered different species.

What are the pressures that could shape an organism’s survival?

In the context of mammals, after the mass extinction of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period (estimated 145.5 million years ago) a wide range of habitats became available for surviving creatures to colonize. One lineage became especially adapted to new modes of life, eventually extending a branch providing us humans (Homo sapiens) the opportunity to wonder about these foundational moments in history.

The video below is an illustration of the new habitats created for ancestral mammals and the selective pressures driving the adaptations needed to thrive in them.

Perhaps one of the most cited examples of colonization into new habitats is a case of adaptive radiation in Darwinian Finches (1800s). The term adaptive radiation refers to the same logic we set forth earlier, stating that organisms that invade available niches will have selective pressures from the environment on traits that encourage their success. Organisms with beneficial mutations or heritable abilities will survive, pass on their genetic information, and in turn a new species of organisms can emerge over time, now adapted to this new habitat.

Below is another HHMI BioInteractive video I recommend on evolution in Galapagos finches observed by Charles Darwin.


What is the significance of biodiversity?

Once biodiversity is established in an area, there are heavy consequences for its collapse. The greatest example of this is with the removal or eradication of keystone species. These organisms are foundational species for an area, meaning their presence keeps the living systems surrounding them regulated. When removed, the ecosystem shortly collapses. One example is the sea otter! As illustrated in the image to the right, when sea otters are present in their environment, barnacle populations remain at low sustainable levels, allowing lush kelp forests to grow and provide shelter for a wide array of aquatic biodiversity. When sea otters are removed from their environment, barnacle populations grow exponentially without predation, resulting in a reduction of kelp forests. Once home to many fish species, without kelp these organisms must find new homes, and as a result are either forced to leave the area or are exposed to predators and collapse themselves.

Non-keystone species also have ecological roles in their environment, which can cause domino effects for species that rely on interactions with them or something they were directly involved with. For instance, some caterpillars are known to take place in what is known as ecosystem engineering. This means the organisms are altering their environment in some way, which in turn can be useful for other creatures. In the case of caterpillars, many will create sheltered burrows in rolled-up leaf material. These burrows remain once the caterpillar no longer needs them, and is then used as a home for many different types of insects.

Regardless of ecological status, all species comprising our global biodiversity contain intrinsic value for their representation of millions of years of evolutionary lineages and evolutionary potential.


How is biodiversity conserved?

At the heart of the drive toward conservation rests governmental policy. Unfortunately, organized citizen by citizen efforts to be conscious about their environmental interactions are limited by the amount of people educational platforms and word of mouth can reach. Only through true government-mediated policy–be that local or federal–will large scale conservation efforts be able to go into effect.

Conservation laws specifically targeting keystone species are incredibly beneficial. Under these policies, not only is the habitat of that keystone species protected, you are in turn automatically conserving the habitat for the other species that occupy the area. The term for this is having an umbrella species, meaning the conservation of one implies conservation of a vast amount of other species. Umbrella species do not always have to be considered a keystone species, but do have to share habitat parameters with other organisms for them to be inherently included in the conservation efforts.

In situations where an organism is dwindling and is not considered an umbrella species, conservation efforts may not benefit other individuals, and thus more efforts may be required to conserve many species in a particular area. To get involved in the politics underlying conservation, it is encouraged to search periodically for bills being presented and contact your local representatives to express desires for the passing of these policies.

Ultimately, awareness within the general public of conservation-related issues and personal, consistent interaction with local government officials is the pathway for driving ecological reform.


Every individual can make a difference in the fight against biodiversity loss!

Ways to Get Involved with Conservation

1) Educate yourself. Stay up to date on current issues in conservation biology. To do this, there are a few options for quick-resources on the latest topics: Eco News Now | Phys Org | Nature Portfolio.

2) Contact your local officials! Stay up to date by searching for current conservations bills being presented to legislators, and make your desires known! To find your representatives, you can use this White House search tool.

3) Spread Awareness! Even if you cannot contribute at the moment, ambassadorship for conservation biology can spread to someone who might be able to.There is exponential growth with spreading the word! Even spreading information to two individuals on a Monday, if each person tells two other people the next day, you have the potential to have reached 254 people by the end of the week (see the figure below)!

An example of the impact of educational spread.

4) Volunteer your time. It is best to make an impactful difference in a chosen area, so be sure to not spread yourself too thin! Many organizations offer volunteer opportunities, such as local preservation chapters and zoos. To find opportunities in your area, quick internet searches are often very effective. To save time, Our Endangered World has created a list of opportunities and subsequent ways to find organizations. Visit this information here.

Citizen scientists in action! Photo Courtesy of the Urban Turtle Project | Birmingham, Alabama (est. 2018)

5) If you do not have time to volunteer, do not fret! There are many ways you can symbolically adopt animals, many of which are housed in zoos and other preservation agencies. Here are examples of symbolic adoption packages offered by WWF (World Wildlife Fund, Inc.).

6) Contribute to citizen science! Getting involved with citizen science projects is an incredible way to experience current research first-hand. One example in Birmingham Alabama, The Urban Turtle Project, allows citizens to help in the capture and counting of turtle species across the state. To learn more about this organization, you can follow this link.


For additional information on conservation biology and the importance of biodiversity, you can view the attachment videos following this article!

Stay Adventurous,

Olivia Grace


Additional Resources: Educational Videos

TEDEd Talk on the Importance of Biodiversity


Crash Course on Conservation and Restoration Biology

Metabolic Bone Disease: What to Do

Muscle spasms, loss of appetite, lethargy—all are common symptoms of Metabolic Bone Disease, also known as MBD. The sad reality of purchasing reptiles in pet stores who don’t hire specialists is often the UVB lighting is not replaced as often as it should be. Though UVB bulbs and light strips may still emit a light frequency, the potency of the fixture decreases over time, limiting the actual amount of UVB exposure the animal is receiving.

What to Do if Your Animal Shows Symptoms

As convenient as it would be to simply bring your reptile to the vet, often buyers are placed in a state of emergency when the new companion they bring home goes into severe spasms. This is a severe state of MTB, and while the animal IS capable of making a recovery, the likelier alternative is the animal will pass.

While under UVB lighting, the animal can be submerged in an electrolyte bath—X part clear-infant Pedialyte to X part water is sufficient. If the animal shows improvement between spasms, a meat-heavy baby food, for example, pureed chicken can be placed on the tongue of the reptile.

Opening the mouth of your reptile can be tricky, especially if they are in a slightly vegetative state. The safest way is to take a small skewer with a flattened end and gently pry open the side of the mouth. From here, the baby food can be glided across the tongue with a Q-tip, dull toothpick, etc.

For less severe symptoms, such as lethargy and loss of appetite, the best bet is to take your reptile to an exotic-trained veterinarian that can identify the source of the issue. As mentioned earlier, it is best to run through the components of your enclosure to consider if MTB is a possibility, or if there could be other issues brewing. UVB strips are excellent for target large areas of a terrarium, however, as their potency fades over time, they need to be switched out. As an average, every six months is reasonable for a strip or bulb to be replaced.

When Purchasing an Animal

Everyone tends to get caught up in the excitement of getting a new animal, and often overlook how the animal is acting, the housing environment, or diet provided.

Before ever purchasing a new companion, it is crucial to be an observer to the creature in its environment. Take note of the diet currently being fed—is it nourishing, is there a lack of nutrients? Notice the skin of the reptile—are the scales in good condition? Look at the eyes—are they reflective and clear, are they dull and cloudy? Most importantly, notice the interaction of the animal with its surroundings and be sure it does not appear lethargic. A new animal should be just as curious as you are to it. If the animal requires special lighting, don’t be afraid to ask an employee the last time the UVB bulb was switched.

Always be sure to hold special lighting as a priority for new companion animals. Unlike housing decorations, a lack of this could prove detrimental to the health and the two should be considered inseparable at the register—if you buy one, you buy the other.

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Olive, Chinese Crested Water Dragon

Before you purchase any animal, be sure to do your research, not only the habitat and diet but of the potential ailments as well. Above all else, don’t be afraid to question the health of the animals being purchased, as this could better prepare you for the road ahead for you and your new companion.

Stay adventurous,

Olivia Grace

The Problem with Exotic Trading

There is nothing more exciting than walking into a pet store to find a new companion. For the most part, animals in stores come from captive breeders–meaning they can sustain numbers without having to catch more from the wild.

A problem has potential to emerge when the animal under desire can only be wild-caught. Take the Sungazer lizard, for example. Commonly called the Giant Girdled Lizard, these animals are native to Sub-Saharan Africa. sungazer-lizard-1647399_1280.jpg
Popular for their dragon-like appearance, these animals quickly became popular in the exotic pet trade. Unfortunately, these animals do not perform well during captive breeding, and because of this, they must be caught individually.

The increased desire for Sungazers quickly caused numbers to dwindle, and without regulations on their species, these girdled lizards now face extinction. Since then, methods have been set in place, pulling these animals from the exotic pet trade in order to raise their population numbers.

What’s happening with these lizards isn’t uncommon in other species as well, another being Ontario’s Spotted Turtle.

While regulations can be set in place after the fact to protect numbers, it seems logical to have a scale in place to limit overexploitation from the start. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) strives to halt illegal pet trade, while encouraging legal numbers coming from the wild to be reduced–as to not harm the individual species.

With the pet trade increasing, the need for further regulations follows in parallel. From WWF’s viewpoint:

“Historically, such overexploitation has caused extinctions or severely threatened species and, as human populations have expanded, demand for wildlife has only increased.”

Hopefully, a stronger desire for conserving these species numbers in the wild will catch hold, and animals like the Sungazer Lizard will no longer dwindle due to a growing industry.

What’s your opinion?

 

 

 

Eye of the Tiger: Caring for My Eastern Tiger Salamander Larva

Earlier in the semester, I stumbled across an Eastern tiger salamander at Petco, still in his waterdog form. This type of salamander is known for its hardiness compared to other salamander breeds.

My little guy’s name is Milo, though he hasn’t stayed little for long.  Spanning a length of 140 mm, he is an ideal size for metamorphosis. While docile to humans, I would hate to be an insect crossing his path.

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No one is certain what causes these water dogs to initiate their change. Speculations range from their fear of a shifting external environment to simply random initiation. I have seen owners induce the transformation in the past by removing a filter and gradually lowering water levels; coupled with increased time between feedings, this can cause the water dogs to morph into their terrestrial form.

Diet for these animals consists of insects, freeze dried krill, as well as pinky mice. The latter, as well as some variations of insects, must be given in moderation due to the tiger salamander’s increased risk for obesity. Milo’s diet currently consists of 4 freeze-dried krill a day, with a mealworm every other day.

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I choose to feed him with feeder tongs, just to ensure his quantities remain consistent. Dropping food in by hand or dangling is perfectly suitable, though sometimes they will mistake your finger for a nibble. That being said, because they lack teeth it will just feel like a rubber ball bouncing off your fingertip.

I have my water dog housed in a three-gallon aquarium right now and am hoping to move him to a new ten-gallon tank in the upcoming week.

Look out for an update post featuring Milo’s new enclosure as well as any growth progress made!

Hopping to the Spotlight

One of my favorite things about hiking is getting to interact with the beautiful creatures around you. Around this time last Spring I was meandering through Chewacla—a park in Auburn, Alabama—when I came across these social fellows.

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Both Fowler’s toads, the toad pictured on top held a darker pigmentation, causing him to beautifully stand out against the moss.

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These kinds of toads can easily be identified in the wild not only due to their markings but because of their unique song and chirp.

A native to North America, these animals spend a majority of their life on land. However, at the time of mating, they will return to shallow waters to find a mate and obtain an area to lay eggs.

These two were quite social when being handled, and had no problem striking a pose for the camera.

I plan to hike the same trail on Friday, and, needless to say,  I’m feeling froggy.