Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental Stewardship
Life Science
World Wildlife Federation
Without biodiversity food, medications, industry, habitats, and ecosystems will falter. Biodiversity is what underlies many important ecological goods and services that provide benefits to humans, and it helps scientists understand how life functions and the role of each species in sustaining ecosystems.

by D'Ann Roher with edits by Brea Reimer 



Biodiversity is the number and variety of living organisms within a specific geographical region. These organisms work together to create a thriving and productive ecosystem.

Species richness refers to the number of species in a given area. For example, a coral reef off the northern part of Australia may have 500 different species of fish while the rocky shoreline of Japan may only have 100 different species. (Britannica)

Ecological biodiversity refers to the variety of ecosystems and habitats. It’s the diverse ways in which species interact with each other and with their environment. (National Wildlife Federation)

Genetic biodiversity refers to variation of DNA within a species. As humans, we can see this in our different heights, eye color, hair color, etc., but genetic diversity can be seen in every species. Consider all the dogs in one neighborhood. While they are all canines, there is a good chance that no two dogs look the same. And even those organisms that look similar will have minute details that differ and internal differences, even on a molecular level.


Historic Roots

Even though the term biodiversity is fairly new to the public’s vocabulary, the diversity of our world dates back millions of years ago. Scientists figure that the diversity of the earth has been inconsistent. There have been massive extinction events. Our earth started out with single celled organisms; later multicellular organisms appeared. Scientists tend to have their own views about the species inventory. Estimates seem to range around ten million species.

Thomas Lovejoy coined the term biological diversity in 1980, while W. G. Rosen coined the word biodiversity itself in 1985. (

At the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 150 countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. This signified that action must be taken to halt the global loss of plant and animal species and genetic resources. These countries agreed to create national strategies, plans and programs for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. (History of Biodiversity)



Biodiversity is key to health for all living organisms. The diversity of food, materials, and medicines contribute not only to healthy consumers but a healthy economy as well. An array of pollinators, such as birds and bees, plants, and soils lead to a variety of produce!

Biodiversity is also a key natural utility service. Water is filtered and cleaned, chemicals are absorbed, oxygen is produced – all by different aspects of our ecosystems. (National Wildlife Federation) Earth has a myriad of ecosystems, ranging from savannahs to coral reefs, wetlands to polar ice caps. Because our ecosystems vary, biodiversity is crucial to Earth’s ability to produce, recycle, and reuse various elements of nature.

Biodiversity helps scientists understand how life functions and the role of each species in sustaining ecosystems. E.O. Wilson wrote in 1992 that, “The biodiversity is the one of the bigger wealths of the planet, and nevertheless, the less recognized as such.” (

If humans continue to cause extinctions of species, whether plants, animals or insects, the global ecosystem is destined for collapse due to the reduction of the biological complexity. The introduction of exotic species is causing extinction of species, which reduces biodiversity, and in turn weakens our ecosystem and makes it more vulnerable to collapse. (

Many educational institutions are now focusing on increased awareness and implementation of biodiversity conservation. Environmentalism, as a movement, has been at the forefront of many organizations, institutes, and political movements. The Earth Institute at Columbia University, for example, believes in investing in science and technology, and strategies for successful sustainable development. ( Natural resources and the stewardship thereof are key to conservation.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Governmental agencies have limited resources for the protection of our biodiversity. They tend to put a value on species and protect that species unless costs are too high. Also, governmental agencies tend to focus on inventory of species instead of focusing on the processes that have created and sustained the species and on elements that currently exist, rather than on the species and elements themselves. (Stanford)

However, there are some governmental agencies that are focused on helping the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a governmental agency that protects our environment.  ( The U.S. Department of Agriculture is a governmental agency which enhances the quality of life for the American people by supporting the production of agriculture.  ( While limited and relatively local, it is a start by government to preserve a common, natural good.

Many nonprofits fund organizations that try to preserve the world’s ecosystems and habitats. Research centers identify high-risk habitats, plants and animals, and nonprofits invest in their conservation, preservation and protection.

For example the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has focused on how to produce the maximum yield in agriculture while conserving biodiversity. The destruction of tropical forests for agricultural land, logging, urbanization, or livestock is a major concern for conservationists. Nonprofit organizations like WWF have tried education, protection, restoration, policy changes, and incentives to reduce the destruction of the biodiversity of rainforests.


Key Related Ideas

  • Ecological biodiversity is also the diversity of durable interactions among species. It is how the organisms apply to the environment they live in. In each ecosystem, living organisms are part of a whole; they interact with one another, but also with the air, water, and soil that surrounds them. (
  • Ecosystem diversity is diversity at a higher level of organization, the ecosystem. This concept reveals the relationship of plants and animals and how they survive without becoming extinct. (
  • Encourage Sustainable Trade is a belief that we humans can live and survive in this world without exhausting all of its resources.
  • Education of the general public on the cause and effect of the goods they purchase is vital to have a sustainable living environment.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 —): Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He spent many years studying and developing new wheat for growth on formally unproductive lands, which was called the “Green Revolution”. One of his goals was to develop new cereals strains into massive production in order to feed the hungry people of the world. Borlaug’s work helped prevent starvation and malnutrition across the globe. (
  • Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 — April 14, 1964): Carson was a published writer, scientist, and ecologist. She documented many articles on conservation and natural resources. She published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around, and other books, which made her famous as a naturalist and science writer. She resigned from government service to educate people about the world of living things. Later in life she focused her attention on the misuse of pesticides and their unknown health effects. In 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, documented how the insecticide DDT accumulates in the environment and harms mammals and birds. Her book helped start the environmental movement. (
  • Kevel C. Lindsay (after 1960 —): Lindsay’s areas of expertise are in Biodiversity conservation, Caribbean natural history, Caribbean forestry, Natural resource planning, and parks and protected areas. (Island Resources Foundation)
  • Thomas E. Lovejoy (1941 —): Lovejoy was the World Bank’s Chief Biodiversity Advisor and Lead Specialist for Environment for Latin American and the Caribbean and Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations Foundation. He has held various board positions for many environmental organizations in addition to the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. Dr. Lovejoy originated the concept of debt-for nature swaps, and is the founder of the public television series Nature. In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. (The Heinz Center) Don J. Melnick (contemporary of Lovejoy, listed above): is the executive director, Center for Environmental Research and Conservation Earth Institute at Columbia University, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, Columbia University. (CERC) 
  • Edward O. Wilson (June 10, 1929 --): Wilson is credited with bringing the term biodiversity to the public.  He is a research Professor at Harvard University.  Wilson’s many scientific and conservation honors include the 1990 Crafoord Prize, a 1976 U. S. National Medal of Science, and two Pulitzer Prizes. 


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Bay and Paul Foundations: Biodiversity Leadership Program is designed to advance the careers of individuals with proven capacity to help stem the loss of biological diversity, and to promote the application of scientific rigor to the complex issues surrounding the on-going extinction crisis.
  • Greenpeace is a nonprofit organization, which uses nonviolent means to stand up for the Earth’s environment.  It wants the Earth to continue to produce biodiversity for future generations.
  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has given grants totaling more than $4 million for biodiversity conservation efforts in the Albertine Rift area of Central Africa.
  • National Wildlife Federation is a self-proclaimed voice for wildlife, dedicated to protecting wildlife and habitat and inspiring the future generation of conservationists. See a briefing paper specifically on the National Wildlife Federation here.
  • The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working to protect the most ecologically important lands and waters around the world for nature and people.  The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.  
  • Biodiversity Support Program of the World Wildlife Fund (created in 1961) promotes conservation of the world’s biological diversity.  They believe in sustaining healthy resources for present and future generations. See also a briefing paper specifically on the World Wildlife Fund here.


Reflection Question

Consider how much biodiversity exists in your local community. Are there many different species? Is there a lot of ecological diversity in the way those species are interacting? Is there a lot of genetic diversity? What do you think would happen if even five or ten of your local species became extinct? Why is biodiversity so important, even in your local area? What are some philanthropic ways in which to support biodiversity in your community?



Ag News. Revolutionary Crop Yields top list of Key Agricultural events during last 50 years.

Bay and Paul Foundation. Bay and Paul Foundation.  

Columbia University. Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. 

The Heinz Center.  Thomas E. Lovejoy.

The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy.  

Rachel Carson.  Rachel Carson.

World Wildlife Fund. About Us. 

National Wildlife Federation. What is Biodiversity? 


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.