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Home › About NEB › Environmental Commitment › Global Conservation › Biodiversity Mini-Reviews
Global Conservation
Past recipients have included:
Energy Access Foundation, an organization that increases access to clean and renewable energy through rural energy enterprises
Aqua Para La Vida, an organization that works in rural Nicaragua to build safe drinking water and sanitation systems
Trees, Water, People, a group dedicated to helping communities protect, conserve and manage natural resources
IDEA WILD, a group dedicated to helping preserve the earth’s biodiversity
Union of Concerned Scientists, a group dedicated to improving the environment
Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), a group dedicated to advancing the science of marine conservation biology
Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI), a group that uses science-based, cooperative solutions to maintain natural ecosystems and the
human communities that depend on them
Conversation Law Foundation, an organization working to solve significant environmental challenges facing New England
Sustainability MiniReviews
Biodiversity MiniReviews
Deep Ocean MiniReviews
Energy Mini-Reviews
Organizations (NGOs)
If put to a vote, most people would probably choose to protect biodiversity,
although few of them could explain exactly what it is they hope to protect. The term biodiversity has
been used so often, and so loosely, that it's meaning has become obscured. On the simplest level, it
relates to the dizzying array of life forms, filling every conceivable niche on scales ranging from microbes
to blue whales. Variety is not only the spice of life but the essence of life itself.
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Ecosystem Resilience
Celebrated species such as the Northern right whale and spotted owl are hovering on the brink of
extinction, but far more is at stake. The health of ecosystems themselves is in jeopardy, as a broad
range of species– each having a sufficiently large population– is needed to maintain the critical services
these natural realms provide. Research has shown, moreover, that biologically diverse systems are more
productive, stable and resilient in the face of environmental change. That's important since change is,
oddly enough, perhaps the one constant in nature: Animal populations in the wild invariably fluctuate,
floodwaters rise and recede, tides ebb and flow, winds howl and subside, glaciers advance and retreat.
Ecosystems endowed with an abundance of species have built-in buffers that help them absorb
unexpected shocks.
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Taking Stock
When it comes to biodiversity, our ignorance is staggering, given how much we depend on the
innumerable organisms that make our world something more than a barren rock. So far, we've probably
identified fewer than a tenth of the creatures on Earth, yet our country presently spends far more
searching for life on other planets than on our own.
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If it makes sense to cordon off a portion of our land from the forces of development and destruction, how
do we decide which areas to set aside? The concept of biologically rich "hotspots," homes for creatures
found nowhere else in the world, was devised for this reason– to suggest an optimal way of focusing our
conservation efforts so that the most species can be saved per dollar invested. This strategy is
necessary, argues a group of ecologists headed by Norman Myers at Oxford University, because the
number of species threatened with extinction greatly exceeds the conservation resources available for
protecting them.
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In the grand hierarchy of hotspots, Madagascar consistently rates among the "hottest of the hots." The
world's fourth largest island, isolated from other land masses for more than 160 million years,
Madagascar affords a rare window on evolution. Most of its plant and animal species evolved separately
from the rest of the world's biota and are thus found nowhere else on Earth. It is a treasure trove of
biodiversity– home to almost 10,000 unique plants, including the rosy periwinkle, the source of the anticancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine and dozens of other medicinal chemicals. More than half the
known species of chameleons are native to Madagascar, as are a spectacular assortment of primitive
primates and some of the largest earthworms seen anywhere.
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Life On The Edge
Rainforests cover just a tenth of the Earth's land surface yet provide a home for about half the known
plant and animal species. Many of the hotspots identified to date contain tropical forests, not
surprisingly, since hotspots are, by definition, species-rich regions. Although the greatest concentrations
of life lie in the forest interior, recent studies have shown that the forest's edge or margin may be
important for producing modifications within species, as well as spawning new species, that keep the
forest's biodiversity pool from stagnating. In response, some biologists are now shifting their gaze from
the rainforest core to "ecotones"– transition zones between environments that serve as breeding grounds
for adaptive variations and new species.
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Going To Extremes
In addition to the 25 officially recognized hotspots, there are countless literal hotspots– scalding hot to
be exact– that give rise to exotic life forms. Hydrothermal vents, geysers on the ocean floor first spotted
in 1977, are host to complex ecosystems inhabited by red tube worms, giant clams and other strange
creatures. Some investigators believe life on earth may have originated in these undersea cauldrons. At
the earth's surface, microorganisms found in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park can thrive in
boiling hot water. One microbe discovered in a Yellowstone spring produces an enzyme which is now
used for polymerase chain reactions (PCR)– a gene-copying technique that is central to genetic
research and engineering. Other enzymes identified at the park are used in laundry detergents and for
removing paint from old airplanes.
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Search For Solutions
Given the complex array of threats to biodiversity, it is hard to imagine a single, or simple, solution to the
problem. At a minimum, profound changes in patterns of consumption and development will be needed,
requiring coordinated action among public and private institutions. As is the case with many
environmental dilemmas, a common ground must be found between economic interests and the desire to
safeguard nature.
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Banking For The Future
Whenever possible, the first option for safeguarding biodiversity ought to be preventing the degradation of
natural habitats. That's just common sense: Why mess with finely-tuned systems, honed by evolution
over the course of millennia? Unfortunately, that approach is not an option in cases where ecosystem
damage is too great. A backup strategy is to preserve endangered species through zoos, botanical
gardens, and seed banks, with the hope of eventually reintroducing plants and animals to their former
habitats. Given that animals are expensive to maintain, and often breed poorly in captivity, there is little
prospect of saving thousands of endangered species in zoos. The largest seeds banks, which hold close
to half a million samples, can save far greater numbers of species.
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What Lies Ahead
Indians of the Colombian Amazon learn their place in the world as children by studying a map of their
homeland that is closely tied to legend. Names and spirits are ascribed to key features in the
environment, be it an animal, tree, brook or marsh. Indians are taught to see the different aspects of
nature as entities with whom they have vital relationships. If the environment comes to ruin, so do they.
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Rethinking The Future
This is a personal note related to our catalog's theme of biodiversity.
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NEB Nature Conservancy
For over 25 years, the NEB Catalog has been a resource for scientists around the world. Now, we
dedicate some of its pages to raise awareness about the impact of biodiversity on the well-being of our
planet. As part of this effort, New England Biolabs will offer support to IDEA WILD, a group dedicated to
helping preserve the Earth's biodiversity.
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