Visualizing Biodiversity

It bears repeating that the central theme of this blog site is that nothing in Nature exists in isolation. Everything is connected !!! Without interrelationships, the driving force of Nature, which is energy, would not flow. There would be no life. This is why visualizing biodiversity is so important.

This breathtaking picture portrays important interrelationships within Nature. The image portrays where I live in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico near Guaymas and about 250 miles south of Tucson Arizona. It is a picture of two highly interconnected ecosystems. To the left is the Sea of Cortez and to the right is a very important estuary known as El Estero del Soldado.

EsteroSoldadoHeader-7035

Many years ago, a study was performed on the energy flow within the Sea of Cortez. The fear was that the Hoover Dam and the resulting trickle flow of the Colorado River into the Sea of Cortez would cause great ecological damage. But, the study showed that the Sea of Cortez is a very resilient body of water because of two factors. First, the shape of the basin that holds the Sea of Cortez is such that the daily tidal flow results in vertical water currents on both sides of this body of water. The result is that a lot of nutrients are transported from the basin’s bottom to the photic (sunlit) water surface where critters feed and gain energy. The second factor is the estuaries along the shores of the Sea of Cortez. These brackish lagoons are known as “nurseries of the sea” because they are the birthplace of many creatures that ultimately reside in the Sea of Cortez. These estuaries are responsible for a rich web of life both in the lagoons and throughout the entire Sea of Cortez.

In a previous post , I described a food web as a network diagram that that portrays food energy flow from one species to another within an ecosystem. I went on to show how the food web diagram can illustrate the potential impact within an ecosystem if a species is eliminated by any means — either natural or by the activities of mankind.

Visualizing biodiversity comes in the form of food webs. Here is a food web diagram for an estuary which portrays the interconnected energy flow within the lagoon and surrounding area.

food-web-bio-revised-version

Like all of our earth’s energy networks, the lagoon’s primary energy comes from the sun. Solar energy is absorbed by plants such as the mangroves. Through a chemical process known as photosynthesis, the plant’s leaves combine the solar energy with carbon to store the sun’s energy in a form we know as chlorophyll. A byproduct is oxygen which the leaves expel as a waste product into the atmosphere. With time, mangrove leaves drop off into the brackish soil that surrounds the plant’s roots. EsteroSoldado-005The decayed leaves become the detritus that provides nutrients for the newly born creatures that live and hide among these roots. In addition, the daily tidal flushing in and out of the lagoon causes these nutrients to flow.

It is these energy flow processes that provide a very rich environment for many the diverse creatures that are portrayed in the food web diagram. Estuaries are described as one of the highest energy producing habitats on Earth. Acre for acre, they are considered to have greater productivity than farm lands.

Using the estuary as an example, let’s examine the idea of Nature’s interconnectivity as a way to look at one meaning of biodiversity. In future posts, I will write about how normal changes in Nature can affect biodiversity. I will also write about how resilience in biodiverse ecosystems becomes an important natural phenomenon during periods of change.

EsteroSoldado-17Since I am writing about both ecosystems and biodiversity, let’s take a moment to define these terms.

An ecosystem is defined as a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. An ecosystem is a complex interconnected system of energy flow conduits. An estuary and the Sea of Cortez can be considered as separate ecosystems or as one massive super ecosystem that results from their inter-connectivity.

“Biodiversity” is one of those words, like “motherhood” and “hot apple pie”, that describe something that is always good but is rarely explained. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines biodiversity as “the existence of many different kinds of plants and animals in an environment“. I’ve read this definition many times and am always left with the feeling of “so what!” .

But, when I probe further and ask why biodiversity is a good thing, I’m told that more plants and animals in an ecosystem provide greater resilience. And, the removal of a plant or an animal from the ecosystem could cause some ecological damage.

This explanation helps, but we are not precisely told what “biodversity” is all about .

A more descriptive definition of biodiversity might be:

” the effect of the interconnectivity of life within an ecosystem”.

Biodiversity addresses the importance of interconnections between living things because biodiversity facilitates the flow of life giving energy in Nature’s ecosystems. The more energy conduits that exist, the greater the energy flow.

One term that you will find when searching for definitions of biodiversity is “Ecological Biodiversity”. Ecological Biodiversity is defined as:

“the variety of ways in which species interact with each other and their environment.”

ESteroSoldado_013So, when I use the term “biodiversity”, I choose to use it to describe the ecological value of relationships within and between species in an ecosystem.

Indeed, energy is the fuel of life. From the smallest cells in our bodies to huge elephant herds, every living thing, needs energy to live. The energy that is contained in the living cells of our bodies, in the food that we eat, or in sunlight, flows from one organism to the next.

Connections in Nature are the conduits for this energy flow. Wherever there is a large or a small group of living things, you will find that Nature’s communities are connected together in many different ways. It is these relationships that define biodiversity. If plants and animals within an ecosystem have many energy conduits we can say that they live within a biodiverse ecosystem. This means that if one energy connection were, within the group of many connections, destroyed, chances are small that this act would affect the entire ecosystem. But, if a creature that has many energy connections is destroyed, chances are high that many creatures will be affected.

ESteroSoldado_31We can sit in a kayak that drifts within the estuary’s lagoon and be surrounded by many examples of Nature’s connectivity. Of course the mangroves are an intense source of energy available to creatures in the lagoon. Then there are the fiddler crabs who are food for the birds. These crabs also facilitate energy flow by tilling the soil inside their burrows that are within the mangrove’s root structures.

Here is a short time lapse video of the tidal flow at El Estero del Soldado and the crabs that emerge from their burrows at low tide.

 

The fish and shrimp that are born within the lagoon and hide in the mangrove roots as juveniles ultimately become an energy flow conduit as they migrate to the open sea and become food for other creatures. The many seabirds that migrate to the lagoons to nest depend upon the protection of the mangrove trees as well as the rich food supply of fish and crabs.

EsteroSoldado_008Hopefully, you are beginning to see a more concrete description of biodiversity and its relationship to the interconnected flow of life giving energy on Earth. Biodiversity is the interconnectivity of Nature that defines the existence of every living being on Earth. This interconnectivity is the life support system of all life on Earth. High connectivity results in high biodiversity. High biodiversity comes from high connectivity. High connectivity within an ecosystem usually results in a ecosystem that is resilient to outside influences. This is so because the loss of some connectivity in a highly connected system will not result in irreparable damage.

Food webs, such as the one displayed in this blog, are methods for visualizing biodiversity. The food web is an important conceptual tool for illustrating the feeding relationships among species within a community. They reveal species interactions and community structure. They provide an understanding of the dynamics of energy transfer in an ecosystem. They show how plants and animals are connected in many ways to help them all survive. They provide a quantitative framework to link community structure with the flow of energy and material. In doing so, food web diagrams help reconcile biodiversity with ecosystem function. Food web studies explore how energy flow (feeding) relationships influence the stability of communities. Food web studies help predict how species losses propagate through communities as well as influence community stability and the functioning of an ecosystem.

By visualizing biodiversity and merging biodiversity research and food-web theory, new and important avenues for ecological research emerge with implications for biodiversity conservation. In particular, these studies help define the negative impact of eliminating highly connected species within an ecological community.

ESteroSoldado_34You don’t have to be a scientist to define what would happen to El Estero del Soldado if certain organisms were removed from the lagoon. The most obvious is the mangrove trees. These trees are so vital to the flow of the lagoon’s energy that their removal would have a highly significant negative impact on the flow of energy. Take another look at the food web diagram and mentally remove the mangroves from the picture. Yet, it was once suggested that this lagoon be developed into a marina.

North of El Estero del Soldado, estuary lagoons have been converted into shrimp farms. Using the food web diagram, assess the impact of these actions on the Sea of Cortez.

Indeed, the food web diagram is the architecture of biodiversity because it helps us identify the interconnections within an ecosystem. By defining these connections, we are able to define the flow of Nature’s energy and the impacts if these energy flows are altered or destroyed.

Worth Your Extra Attention :

Thanks for reading this blog post.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

3 Responses to “Visualizing Biodiversity”

  1. Liz Clark (@madbushfarm) says:

    I always enjoy your posts thanks for this about biodiversity

    • Bill Graham says:

      Hi Liz:

      Thank you so much for your encouragement. I carefully watch the statistics of my blog site and note those blog posts that are popular. While this kind of activity is encouraging, it doesn’t hold a candle to the great encouragement I receive from comments such as yours. You guys keep me going !!!!

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