What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth. Better known as biological diversity, biodiversity can be broken down into bio (life) and diversity (variety). When we talk about the biodiversity of an area (such as Georgian Bay) we are talking about everything from people and other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, plants, fungi, and even the smallest organisms that we may not easily see!

Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity is important for maintaining a healthy planet! The more diverse a place is, the more life it can support. Biodiversity is important for people as well as other species. Without biodiversity, we would not have many of the different foods we enjoy, important medicines, building materials, and many cultural and spiritual practices would not exist. Biodiversity helps to maintain the ecosystem balance and food webs that keep our planet healthy!

Threats

Today biodiversity is under threat and, unfortunately, people have caused many of these threats. Some main threats include habitat loss, pollution and pesticide use, climate change, invasive species, fossil fuels, and resource extraction. Currently, biodiversity is declining at a rapid rate and many species are at risk of becoming extinct. Much of the diversity on earth is not yet known, so we could be losing much more diversity than we think!

One example that outlines how important biodiversity is the comparison between a lawn and the forest floor! These two very different places outline how when humans try to control natural areas, we are losing out on some very important opportunities to help biodiversity!

Lawn

*Take a moment and imagine what your lawn looks like or the lawn of a park near you. Is it all grass? Does someone regularly cut the lawn? Are the weeds removed? What animals do you see on your lawn?*

A lawn tends to be entirely grass. Maybe it has some small flowers or seedlings. Or maybe someone pulls out all of the unwanted plants (weeds) or sprays a herbicide (a chemical) on them to get rid of anything that isn’t grass.

Grass lawns are not biodiverse because they do not provide food, shelter, or enough space to support a variety of species. In fact, people spend a lot of time and money to make sure they are not diverse. A well-manicured lawn is thought to be a status symbol for some people, and some people can feel pressure to maintain their grass.

Grass lawns are what we call a monoculture or mono-crop – mono means ‘one’ – similar to when farmers plant just one crop in a field. A monoculture is meant to not be diverse, it is meant to preform a function for people. It is hard to maintain because it is not how balance works in nature.

Forest Floor

The forest floor – the layer of leaves and soil under trees in a forest – offers many nooks and crannies for food, space, and shelter. Forests provide different conditions all at once – like warm dry spots in once place and cool wet patches somewhere else.

Forests have layers of different species using resources in a specific way so they are not competing for the same thing. Insects may thrive in the rich soil while rodents burrow under tree roots and snakes wait for prey hidden under rocky ledges.

The forest floor can house many small species that we may not notice right away. You may see many moss, lichen, fungi, and insects if you look close enough! The types of species can be very different (or diverse) from place to place, not all forests are the same, but they are all important!

All forests are home to many different creatures. A healthy forest floor may attract large mammals such as deer, moose, or bears that find food or shelter. Some of the diversity on a forest floor may not be obvious at first, but if you look closely it may surprise you!

Lessons from the Forest Floor

You can help make lawns a more diverse place by taking lessons we have learned from natural areas, such as the forest floor! There are creative ways to copy forest lessons that will help to biodiversity on your lawn! Think about it: how often do you use the lawn in your front or backyard? How often is the lawn around an office building used? Imagine if instead of lawn it was a natural area that attracted pollinators and birds and other animals.

Here are some ways to take your lawn from “just grass” to a diverse space full of life:

  1. Plant a tree! Trees or shrubs on your lawn can make a difference. One mature tree could be a home to insects, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and more. Trees also provide great shade for your home in the hot summer months!
  2. Plant native grasses, wildflowers, or clover! Lawns are usually made up of just a couple of grass species not normally found in this area. By choosing to plant species that are native to the area they are more used to the climate and often require less care and watering.
  3. Shrink it! If we all reduced our the size of ours lawn a bit, it would add up to make a big difference.
  4. Mow less! Reducing how often you mow your lawn, especially in the spring, can can allow species of insects that burrow in the ground overwinter to emerge and feed on flowers.
  5. Let your lawn naturalize! You could go full-on meadow for your front lawn! Get rid of the grass altogether and either leave it alone to see what naturally grows or plant a variety of native species.
  6. Design your dream garden! A giant garden is still better than grass! If you like designs and patterns, choose native species to plant and rip up the grass to build a garden. You’ll impress the neighbours and help create habitat.

Biodiversity Showdown: A Closer Look

Still unsure if lawns are less diverse than the forest floor? One of the best ways to understand biodiversity is to see it for yourself! Grab the materials below to get started on your own diversity search comparing the lawn in your backyard or a park, to a forested area near you.

Materials

  • Pencil/pen
  • Piece of paper (clipboard or a hard surface may be helpful)
  • Hula hoop, skipping rope, piece of string- anything that can be used to create a large outline.
  • Extra: Magnifying glass, identification guides, and iNaturalist on a phone or device

Instructions:

  1. Decide how to record your findings. 
    1. Method 1: Count and tally the different things you see! If you do not know what something is, write down as much detail as possible, if you have ID books or iNaturalist handy try to identify as many plants or organisms as you can.
    2. Method 2: If you prefer to be an artist, try sketching out each thing you see in as much detail as you want.
  2. Pick study locations. Pick a safe spot, not close to roads. Make sure it is an area where you can spend some time and you are not blocking a trail for example. Try not to disturb wildlife or crush plants!
  3. Use your hula hoop or rope to mark out a space on the lawn/forest floor. 
    1. Try to compare the same amount of space for both the lawn and the forest floor. Start to record all the different things you can see within the area. Do this for both the lawn and forest floor. *Count even the smallest things you see, such as ants, moss, lichen, seedlings, twigs, logs, *
  4. Record as many different things as possible. The goal is to look for diversity (the number of different things) so you do not have to count every blade of grass! For example, you can put down “I see two different kinds of grass or flowers”. Then describe them/ draw them.
  5. Compare the diversity! After you have visited the two locations, compare your lists or drawings and see which place, the lawn or the forest floor, has a higher diversity. Think about not only a diversity in plants or animals but also habitat it may provide. For example, an area may have rocks that insects, reptiles, or amphibians like to hide under, or it may have a decaying log that may provide food and habitat to other creatures.
  6. Decide based on your findings which is more diverse!
  7. Let us know what you find! Send us your findings to [email protected].