What is biodiversity science?

The second session of Conservation Science opened with a discussion on the total number of species on Earth. Suggestions varied from 1.5 million to 30 million, with students then asked to vote on the answers. There was a 50:50 split between the two options, but it was revealed that, in fact, everyone was right! There are 1.5 million named species, and estimates of anything from 3 to 30 million total.

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We then discussed how to define biodiversity and looked at ways in which it could be measured – namely species richness, evenness and heterogeneity. We established that diversity can come in numerous different shapes and forms, from genetic, functional, and ecosystem diversity, and can be measured across different scales, which brought us onto a revision of the topic of alpha, beta and gamma diversity. With all the definitions and classifications of biodiversity revised, Isla proceeded to look at patterns and gradients of biodiversity, such as the classic example of the latitudinal biodiversity gradient.

Isla’s lecture moved on to the question of ‘what is biodiversity science?’. After defining conservation, we looked at biodiversity and ecosystem function research and the discussed what the biggest threats to biodiversity are – just “humans” was not deemed to be an acceptable answer! The class settled on land use change being the greatest threat to biodiversity, as well as climate change and invasive species. Interestingly, however, over-exploitation was not really mentioned, despite it being the second biggest threat (Pereira et al., 2012). Our homework was to contemplate whether there is a biodiversity crisis ready for Aidan’s lecture next week.

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The class then voted against a break (!) and moved on to the tutorials.

It was in the tutorials that we really got a chance to dig into the subject matter, and discuss some of the questions that are still plaguing conservation scientists today. We were given a set of papers to read covering the Living Planet Index, value metrics used to measure biodiversity change, and the question of how best to allocate resources globally towards conservation efforts. The topic my tutorial group focused on the most was the controversy between hot- and coldspots; hot and coldspots are areas of ecosystems that deserve resource allocation. Hotspots tend to focus on findings areas with the highest density of biodiversity based on metrics like vascular plant richness, whereas as focusing on coldspots means allocating just enough resources to an ecosystem to ensure its functionality, but then protecting it beyond that is inefficient. The fundamental axioms that divide these two distinct methods lead us to a discussion about what types of biodiversity there were beyond that of species, and turns out it’s quite a lot!

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Once the tutorial had ended, we gathered back together to answer a very important question in biodiversity science: Is there a difference in the biodiversity of Pokémon between Kings Buildings and Central campus? Some very enthusiastic Pokémon GO users in the class had spent the week collecting Pokémon throughout the two campuses so that we could apply some of the formulas used by actual biodiversity scientists in R. We found that the diversity of Pokémon was higher in Kings using Shannon’s Index, but that the answer wasn’t quite as straightforward as we had initially supposed; sampling effort was nearly twice as high in Kings than Central, skewing our data. After playing around with the data to get more nuanced answers, we briefly spoke about people’s ideas for their opinion pieces and called it a day.

By Josie and Nick

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