This week marks the five year anniversary of the BP oil spill. While the Gulf of Mexico is certainly in much better shape than when the pipeline first burst, the recovery process is not over. Economic recovery has been noticeable as tourism has returned and visitors are going to the beaches again, although industries reliant on seafood have not bounced back as strongly. The environment has also struggled as oil persists beneath the ocean with tar balls still appearing along the shoreline. However, unlike tourism, the environmental damage will be permanent and persistent. A government report indicates that dolphins in the area are suffering from oil poisoning. The oil has destroyed and killed off mangrove islands that were key nesting sites for certain bird species. Outside of the seafood industry, this type of potential long term damage to organisms is largely overlooked by the public because there is no tangible value seen in biodiversity.
In reality, biodiversity is one of the most important resources we have at our disposal and also one of the most underappreciated since we don’t always realize the importance or usefulness of certain organisms. Take the horseshoe crab, for example. For a long time, the organism was considered a pest and routinely killed off so as to prevent them from eating shellfish. Now they are amongst one of the most valuable organisms for medical research given the unique clotting properties of their blood. Without horseshoe crab blood, which as of now has no synthetic or natural alternative, today’s pharmaceutical and medical advances would likely not exist. Unfortunately, it has gotten to the point where horseshoe crabs are drained of blood so much that some end up dying when released back in the wild. As a result, horseshoe crab numbers have been declining over the last few years and it is simply an organism we cannot afford to lose.
On the other side, there is the zebra finch, which is one of the most common birds in Australia. While the zebra finch does not provide a tangible product that humans can use, they provide genetic insight to the way humans developed speech. Unlike some birds, a zebra finch has to learn songs in the same way a human child has to learn speech. A large portion of their genome is devoted to hearing and vocalizing songs and many of the genes are parallels of those in humans. This makes the zebra finch an ideal model for studying genetic foundations of human speech disorders and pathologies. Additionally, the zebra finch genome was crucial in the discovery of the telomere, essentially the aglets of our chromosomes, which plays a role in predicting lifespan as well as in the development of cancer.
These are only two examples of how humans have benefitted from biodiversity, not to mention the bacteria used to produce insulin, snake venom used to treat arthritis and the thousands of plants used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. There are also so many species yet to be discovered or species, like the horseshoe crab, whose potential benefits may not be obvious yet.
When it comes to the conservation of species, there is often this idea that man has a “duty” to conserve the species that man’s inhabitance has destroyed. The reality is that the vast majority of species to ever inhabit the earth have gone extinct without any help from humans, despite a sense of self-importance. While we may be expediting the process for some species, the moral argument for saving them may not be the most compelling.
Rather, biodiversity needs to be treated as a resource. In the grand scheme of things, biodiversity and the genomes of all organisms inhabiting the planet are like a library. There is such a wealth of knowledge and most of it has not even been read yet. So far, that knowledge has proven indispensable in our understanding of the world, in medical advancements and in our economic and developmental progression as a society. When instances like the BP oil spill and other large scale environmental disasters happen, it slowly gets rid of parts of this library before we can even read it. When species go extinct, that knowledge is effectively lost forever. Our reliance on other species cannot be understated. Biodiversity is more than just a boldfaced term in biology textbooks. It is a core aspect of the world we live in and how the world will advance, whether we acknowledge it or not.