Sweating the Small Stuff

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson grew up exploring the swamps and river bottom forests of Mobile, Alabama. Now in his 80s, his long and distinguished scientific career has included 40 years at Harvard and two Pulitzer Prizes. We talked to him about the biodiversity crisis.

WRR: How important are the planet’s freshwater species to life on earth, and how are they faring?

EOW: Freshwater systems harbor a large part of Earth’s biodiversity; and meter for meter, their species are even more endangered than those in terrestrial ecosystems. Rivers and their watersheds also service downstream land ecosystems and the species in those systems.

WRR: Why do the “little creatures” matter in the big scheme of things?

EOW: Take away all aquatic animals over 100 grams in weight and a system would be seriously impaired. Take away all animals and microorganisms under one gram in weight and the ecosystem would die, and almost immediately.

WRR: What do we lose when we lose a species?

EOW: We lose a genetic code built up by strenuous natural selection to a particular niche over thousands to millions of years. In some cases the extinction is of a “keystone species,” so some other species will tumble with it.

In reality, we don’t know 90% of what we’re losing, because we’ve only discovered about 10% of the planet’s species. When we're trying to stabilize the environment - trying to stop ecosystems from collapsing in the face of global warming or big dams or whatever – we really need to know what's in each of these habitats. We need then to move ecology way ahead of where it is today, really make it a much bigger priority.

WRR: What is the most important thing we need to do to address biodiversity loss?

EOW: Scientists have the knowledge and the technology to staunch biodiversity loss. What we don’t have is public understanding of the problem—and the enormous extra benefits to humanity available by studying and saving the rest of life. Therefore, the key is education.