Biodiversity is the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or for the entire Earth. Biodiversity is often used as a measure of the health of biological systems. The biodiversity found on Earth today consists of many millions of distinct biological species, which is the product of nearly 3.5 billion years of evolution.
“Biological diversity” or “biodiversity” can have many interpretations and it is most commonly used to replace the more clearly defined and long established terms, species diversity and species richness. Biologists most often define biodiversity as the “totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region”. An advantage of this definition is that it seems to describe most circumstances and present a unified view of the traditional three levels at which biological variety has been identified: gene, species and ecosystem.
Recent estimates of the total number of species range from 7 to 20 million, of which only about 1.75 million species have been scientifically described. The best-studied groups include plants and vertebrates (phylum Chordata), whereas poorly described groups include fungi, nematodes, and arthropods. Species that live in the ocean and in soils remain poorly known. For most groups of species, there is a gradient of increasing diversity from the Poles to the Equator, and the vast majority of species are concentrated in the tropical and subtropical regions.
Uses and values
Some measure of biodiversity is responsible for providing essential functions and services that directly improve human life. For example, many medicines, clothing fibers, and industrial products and the vast majority of foods are derived from naturally occurring species. In addition, species are the key working parts of natural ecosystems. They are responsible for maintenance of the gaseous composition of the atmosphere, regulation of the global climate, generation and maintenance of soils, recycling of nutrients and waste products, and biological control of pest species. Ecosystems surely would not function if all species were lost, although it is unclear just how many species are necessary for an ecosystem to function properly.
Human activities, such as direct harvesting of species, introduction of alien species, habitat destruction, and various forms of habitat degradation (including environmental pollution), have caused dramatic losses of biodiversity; current extinction rates are estimated to be 100–1000 times higher than prehuman extinction rates.