What is “biodiversity?”

We are republishing an article from the San Francisco Forest Alliance with their permission and the permission of the author of the article, Professor Arthur Shapiro, UC Davis. 

 There’s been a lot of talk of ‘biodiversity’ in San Francisco recently. The city’s ‘Recreation and Open Space Element’ (ROSE) mentions it without clearly defining it. The Natural Areas Program claims to preserve it. There’s a new position, the Biodiversity Coordinator (currently Peter Brastow, formerly of Nature in the City) within San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.

One of our readers, puzzled by all the discussion, asked a simple question of UC Davis Professor Arthur Shapiro, who gave a talk at the Commonwealth Club a few days ago. Instead of the two-line answer they expected, he sent this detailed response — which he kindly permitted us to publish.

A buzzword. Biodiversity means whatever you want it to mean. I hate the word. Here’s why.

The following is from the introductory biology textbook we use at U.C. Davis, Life: The Science of Biology, (10th edition, Sadava et al., p.1229 — yes, I said p. 1229!):

“…the term BIODIVERSITY, a contraction of ‘biological diversity,’ has multiple definitions. We may speak of biodiversity as the degree of genetic variation within a species….Biodiversity can also be defined in terms of species richness in a particular community. At a larger scale, biodiversity also embraces ecosystem diversity–particularly the complex interactions within and between ecosystems….One conspicuous manifestation of biodiversity loss is species extinction…”

Got that?

The glossary at the back of the book defines “biodiversity hot spot” (itself ambiguous, conflating numbers of species and degree of endemism), but NOT biodiversity itself. One can see why.

Where did this verbal monstrosity come from?

Heliconius mimicry.  Creative Commons Generic 2.0
Heliconius mimicry. Creative Commons Generic 2.0

The raw number of species in a defined area or system – what many of us call “species richness“–is a useful number. There are more species of butterflies in Brazil than in California, and more in California than in Alaska. That is true even if we pro-rate species number by area, and it is not trivial to ask why.

But there is more to biodiversity than mere numbers of species.  Ecologists are also interested in how individuals are divided among species, that is, the distribution of commonness and rarity among species. You can have a  “community” consisting of exactly two species.  It could have, say, 50 individuals of each species, or it could have 99 of one and 1 of the other–or any ratio in between. Does this matter? Why? What can those numbers tell us?


A century ago a Danish plant ecologist named Christen Raunkiaer observed that there was a statistical regularity to this; he called it the “law of frequency.” In subsequent years it was found to hold for bird censuses and moths collected at lights, as well as for old-field plants. A whole series of mathematical models developed over the years attempted to account for this regularity by means of assumptions about how species interacted–competing for resources, for example.  These exercises were at the core of community ecology for several decades, and were seen as immensely important.

During World War II an applied mathematician named Claude Shannon, working on war-related communications problems at Bell Labs, developed a formula that concisely expressed the information content of a message. Ecologists discovered the Shannon formula in the 1960s and realized it could easily be adapted to give a single number that combined the number of species in a community and their relative abundances.

Thus whole communities could be compared efficiently, a potentially informative and useful tactic in trying to understand how multispecies systems worked. The number generated by the Shannon formula came to be called diversity, and the formula became the first and most widely-used of several diversity indices. I learned it in high school and I still use it in teaching. Diversity had two components, then:

  • Species richness and
  • “Equitability,” (the difference between a 50:50 and a 99:1 community).

And we were off and running. Now everything could be quantified with a diversity index: “foliage height diversity” in a forest canopy, or “aspect diversity” in moth faunas (how many wing shape-pattern themes could be recognized?). The number of uses and abuses of the term multiplied like rabbits. By 1971 things had gotten so bad that a paper was published caustically titled “The nonconcept of species diversity.” It was widely applauded for its candor.  Unfortunately, the author ended up inventing his own new measure of diversity–one he thought was better than the old ones.


But things could get worse. And they did. With the passage of the Endangered Species Act, which opened the door to protection of endangered subspecies (keep in mind that there is no concept of the subspecies; a subspecies is whatever some taxonomist says it is) and even “distinct population segments” (no one knows what that means), genetics got in on the diversity game. Now we would not be content with diversity at the species level; we needed to
get inside species.

In the scramble to define what might be protectable, a search was launched for “evolutionarily significant units.” With modern molecular-genetic tools, we quickly learned that taxonomic subspecies may be genomically nearly identical, while organisms indistinguishable by the naked eye may be wildly different. Defining diversity at the genetic level is still, well, challenging.

One very useful dimension of biodiversity is known as alpha, beta and gamma diversity:

  • Alpha diversity is species richness at the local level.
  • Beta diversity is a measure of how much the biota of different localities within a region differ among themselves–that is, how quickly species composition “turns over” in space [i.e. when you have many different little ecosystems next to each other].
  • Gamma diversity is at a large spatial scale.

The Bay Area has phenomenally high beta diversity in almost everything.


So what is biodiversity? It’s species richness, plus the distribution of abundance and rarity, plus the geography of all that, plus the amount of genetic variation in selected species of interest, plus whatever you please.

Somehow or other concepts of “quality” have gotten mixed in, too. When you clear-cut a redwood forest (which has very low species richness), the early-successional communities that develop on the site, which may be dominated by “invasive weeds,” will have both much higher species numbers and a richer distribution of species abundances than the forest they replaced. But early-successional communities don’t get any respect despite being more diverse and despite the supposition that biodiversity is good. Because they’re made up of the ‘wrong’ species–whatever that means.

Because biodiversity, after all, is only a buzzword.


Dunnigan Test Plot, Augusst 2011.  The result of an eight-year effort to restore native grassland.  Does it look "biodiverse?"  ecoseed.com.
Dunnigan Test Plot, August 2011. The result of an eight-year effort to restore native grassland. Does it look “biodiverse?” ecoseed.com.

Addendum:  We have recently learned that Peter Brastow, San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program Coordinator, has applied for an Urban Greening Planning Grant for the City of San Francisco to fund the creation of a Biodiversity and Ecology Master Plan.  This grant application was submitted to the State of California’s Strategic Growth Council for $250,000.

This Master Plan would “identify land owners at the parcel level” (including your backyard;  see below*) for “consolidating ownership and/or management of wild lands and natural areas into as few departments as possible in order to facilitate coherent and higher quality habitat restoration and management.”  The Natural Areas Program “serves as a model for extending this work beyond Recreation and Park Department lands.”  (Quotes are directly from the grant application.)  In other words, the Biodiversity and Ecology Master Plan will extend the work of the Natural Areas Program to all open space in San Francisco, regardless of the current ownership of the land.

The complete document is available here:  Biodiversity Action Plan – grant application questions.final.  We find this a horrifying prospect.  The Natural Areas Program is extremely controversial because it destroys existing habitat, uses large quantities of toxic herbicides, and restricts access to designated trails.  Applying these policies into all open space in the city is a bad idea

– Million Trees

*The grant application says, “We will review the potential of rear yard open space, green roofs, green walls, landscaping, street trees, mini and pocket parks, and other urban design potential to enhance biodiversity in the urban landscape.”

2 thoughts on “What is “biodiversity?””

  1. OMG STOP this and him! We really need to prevent these wrongthinkers from doing more damage than they already have. Vote them out if there’s a way to do so.

    1. You get a gold star for reading to the bitter end of this post! Thank you.

      No, the authors of this grant application were not elected. The Biodiversity Program was created by the Department of the Environment. The Department of the Environment is theoretically accountable to the Commission on the Environment. The commissioners are appointed by the mayor of San Francisco.

      So, if you don’t like the Biodiversity Master Plan, you could start by writing the Commission on the Environment to express your opinion. Their contact information is 1455 Market Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, California, 94103; phone: 415-355-3700

      You could also tell the mayor of San Francisco that you don’t like what the commission is doing. They are accountable to him. Here is a link to a contact form the mayor: http://sfmayor.org/index.aspx?page=7.

      You could also ask the granting agency to deny this application. The email address of the Strategic Growth Council is: sgc.info@sgc.ca.gov. The Strategic Growth Council will award these grants at their meeting on June 3, 2014. So you will need to express your opinion before that meeting.

      Your tax dollars are paying for both the Biodiversity Program in San Francisco and the State of California’s Strategic Growth Council, so you have a right to an opinion.

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