This guest blog was written by Dr. Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair of Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Dr. Knowlton recently completed a tour in Manila, Batangas, and Quezon City, where she spoke with students, academics, government officials and museum curators about coral reefs, biodiversity conservation efforts and marine research in the Philippines. Dr. Knowlton’s visit to the Philippines was coordinated through support from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Turn over a big rock in the woods and see lots of critters dash or creep for cover. If you lift up rocks in a tide pool (a pool of seawater along the shore refilled by the tide), you will similarly discover a community of organisms you might never have suspected even existed. (Remember to always place the rock back carefully so that they don’t lose their homes.)
No matter where you look, there are different kinds of animals, plants, fungi and microbes making a living on our planet, often unnoticed by us. This is biodiversity and it is everywhere, often hiding in plain sight. But if we don’t usually notice this biodiversity, does it make a difference? Would it matter if the living world consisted of just the common animals and plants we count on to feed us and produce the things we need to make our homes and run our factories?
Losing most of the planet’s biodiversity would not just make for a much more boring world, but also many of the things we take for granted would no longer happen. Did you enjoy an apple recently? Then thank the bee that pollinated the apple flower. Have you noticed that our pathways and beaches are not thickly littered with the stinking corpses of dead animals? Then say thank you to the planet’s undertakers: scavengers great and small, from vultures to tiny insects and microbes, who turn the bodies of the dead into nutrients for new life. Do you enjoy swimming in clear water? If so, be grateful for oysters and sponges, who, after filtering the water for food, return it in a much cleaner state. Had a fish dinner recently? Depending on what you ate, you might want to send a note of appreciation to the coastal seagrasses or mangrove forests that provided it shelter when it was young.
Consider a tiny fish from Fiji that serves as a bodyguard for the corals it calls home. Only last year did we learn that when a nasty species of seaweed that can kill coral settles nearby, the coral sends out a chemical call for help. Within minutes, the tiny fish removes the threat by eating the seaweed. In doing so, that little fish doesn’t just help the coral; it helps us too. The coral creates the reef that in turn provides food, attractions for tourists with the jobs that they bring, and protection for coastal communities against storm waves and tsunamis. Hiding within the branches of these corals are also medicines waiting to be discovered, such as from cone snails. Their lovely shells appeal to collectors, but even more important is the cocktail of poisons that the living cone snails use to catch their prey—deadly to fish, but for us, they are valuable sources of painkillers and possible treatments for arthritis or cancer.
So does biodiversity matter? What do you think?
This entry reflects the author’s personal judgments and does not represent the views of the United States Government or the Department of State.