Biodiversity is a key measure of the health of any ecosystem, and of our entire planet. Every organism in an ecosystem, or biome, relies on other organisms and the physical environment. For example, plant and animal species need each other for food, and depend on the environment for water and shelter. Biodiversity describes how much variety an ecosystem has, in terms of resources and species, and also genetically within species. A more diverse ecosystem will have more resources to help it recover from famine, drought, disease or even the extinction of a species. There are several levels of biodiversity, each indicating how diverse the genes, species and resources are in a region.
Every ecosystem contains a unique collection of species, all interacting with each other. Some ecosystems may have many more species than another. In some ecosystems, one species has grown so large that it dominates the natural community. When comparing the biodiversity of ecosystems, an ecosystem that has a large number of species, but no species greatly outnumbering the rest, would be considered to have the most species diversity. A large number of species can help an ecosystem recover from ecological threats, even if some species go extinct.
Genetic diversity describes how closely related the members of one species are in a given ecosystem. In simple terms, if all members have many similar genes, the species has low genetic diversity. Because of their small populations, endangered species may have low genetic diversity due to inbreeding. This can pose a threat to a population if it leads to inheritance of undesirable traits or makes the species more susceptible to disease. Having high genetic diversity helps species adapt to changing environments.
A region may have several ecosystems, or it may have one. Wide expanses of oceans or deserts would be examples of regions with low ecological diversity. A mountain area that has lakes, forests and grasslands would have higher biodiversity, in this sense. A region with several ecosystems may be able to provide more resources to help native species survive, especially when one ecosystem is threatened by drought or disease.
The way species behave, obtain food and use the natural resources of an ecosystem is known as functional diversity. In general a species-rich ecosystem is presumed to have high functional diversity, because there are many species with many different behaviors. Understanding an ecosystem’s functional diversity can be useful to ecologists trying to conserve or restore damaged it, because knowing the behaviors and roles of species can point to gaps in a food cycle or ecological niches that are lacking species.