Short History of the Study of Biodiversity

The term biodiversity (as the contracted form of biological diversity) was first used at a plan ning meeting of the National Forum on BioDiversity (Wilson and Peters, 1988). The word now frequently appears in current newspaper articles and other mass media and has focused public awareness in some countries on the importance of conservation. A poll of U.S. residents in 2002 showed that biodiversity is "not just for scientists anymore"; 30 percent had heard of biological diversity, compared with only 19 percent in 1996 (Biodiversity Project, 2002). However, many who have heard of the term still do not understand what it means. Part of the confusion is that the term biodiversity applies to different aspects of biological variation and, therefore, has become a catchphrase that has multiple meanings. Even though the term biodiversity is relatively new, for thousands of years philosophers and scientists have studied aspects of biodiversity.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was the earliest Western philosopher who attempted to place biodiversity in some formal order or classification. He analyzed variation in the appearance and biology of organisms, and searched for similar patterns by which to group organisms together. This is the science of taxonomy, an essential tool for describing the biological diversity of organisms.

Traditionally, biologists described the diversity of organisms by comparing their anatomy and physiology. Since the 1960s, biologists have developed increasingly sophisticated techniques to study biological variation at the cellular and molecular levels. Scientists now examine chromosomes and genes with more precision, gathering more details about the extent of genetic variation between individuals, populations, and species.

Today, scientists who study population dynamics in biodiversity still turn to studies undertaken by scientists more than two centuries ago. Malthus (1798) provided one of the earliest theories of population dynamics. Subse quent work through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries expanded these initial concepts. Lotka (1925) and Volterra (1926) developed theories of population ecology by studying population growth relative to competition and predation. Also during the twentieth century, biologists such as Fischer, Wright, and Haldane developed theories of population genetics. Their theories were based on a synthesis of the early work of Darwin and Mendel on natural selection and inheritance of morphological characteristics. The diverse aspects of population ecology and population genetics are combined in the overall subject of population biology.

The science of ecology is another essential tool used to define biodiversity. Ecology is the study of organisms and their relationships with their biotic and abiotic environments. This includes the way in which organisms compete for and use essential resources such as food, water, and space; how organisms find mates; and the underlying processes behind organism dispersal and the colonization of new regions and habitats. Haeckel (1869) was the first to define the term ecology, but even before that, biologists were aware of the importance and complexity of the interrelationships between organisms and their environment.

By the 1960s, scientists started to recognize that populations, species, and ecosystems were disappearing at a rapidly accelerating rate because of human activity. More recently, scientist have estimated the rate of biodiversity loss to be comparable to pervious periods of mass extinction, and refer to this as the Sixth Extinction (Eldredge, 1998; Pimm et al., 1995; McCann, 2000; see also Evolutionary Processes That Create and Sustain Biodiversity, below). In response to the seriousness of this issue, scientists from diverse fields have developed the field of conservation biology. This field integrates knowledge from both the natural and social sciences for the purpose of maintaining the earth's biodiversity. The discipline grew rapidly in the 1990s; simultaneously, the study of biodiversity has become a central and unifying theme of research in genetics, taxonomy, biogeography, ecology, anthropology, socioeconomics, and natural resource management. The study and protection of biodiversity also became an important part of global politics. The following areas of investigation are central to conservation biology activities, either at a regional or a global level:

assessment and inventory of the remaining biodiversity evaluation of threats to biodiversity analysis of how biodiversity is changing in response to threats assessment of the importance of different aspects of biodiversity to humans mitigation of biodiversity loss, and strategies to conserve the remaining biodiversity.

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