We Live In A Biodiversity Hotspot

California’s Unique Place In The World

Posted on: October 22nd, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #28

Earth seen from space has been imagined as a blue marble or a blue planet. There’s no other planet like it within our reach. Photo by NASA.

Life on Earth, “the Blue Planet,” our unique, life-filled “third rock from the Sun,” is quite a special place in the known universe. Every year, astronomers discover new “Earth-like” planets, all many light-years away and thus, unreachable, that in theory could sustain life. But we will never know because we can’t explore them or visit them. And believe me, we have been looking. We’ve surveyed the Moon and Mars with the high hopes of finding water and perhaps conditions for life to no avail so far. Based on measures of temperature, the structure of substrates, and the composition of atmospheres, we’ve speculated and reasoned whether life could exist in other celestial bodies as we know—or don’t know—in our solar system. And we spend quite a bit of money in these endeavors, millions every year.

And yet, we have plenty of life on this planet, which is chock full of it; millions of species ranging from the massive blue whale to the small but powerful virus currently wreaking havoc in our human population. And we still don’t quite understand, have studied thoroughly, or even know where life on Earth came from. But, oh, how wonderful it would be to learn that there is life elsewhere in the universe, right? If for no other reason than to feed our desires to explore, to discover, to learn more, and perhaps one day be able to escape our current planet to colonize other places and avoid the little mess we’ve created in this one.

I’m firmly entrenched in the camp that says “well, that’s cool” to the search for extraterrestrial life, but only as long as we don’t neglect the investigation, understanding, and protection of the precious life that is right under our feet, on this planet, right now. Our society has not given this search the appropriate level of seriousness and resources. And thus, every day, we lose an estimated 150 species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes, species that disappear and become extinct, never to come back. With their extinction, millions of years of evolution that created unique genomes and their potential to find new medicines, foods, and resources are lost forever.

Current 35 Biodiversity Hotspot on Earth. The California Floristic Province is one of them.
Map of the California Floristic Province. Notice it extends into Southern Oregon, a smidge of Western Nevada, and northern Baja California in Mexico.

In 1988, Norman Myers, a British ecologist, introduced the concept of biodiversity hotspots, identifying ten tropical forests with an exceptionally high number of unique species. Since then, other areas worldwide have been added to the hotspot category, a total of thirty-six regions to date. Over two billion people live in these places, including some of the world’s most impoverished communities. This makes it even more challenging to protect these unique species and habitats from overexploitation and destruction. California is one of these biodiversity hotspot areas. It is known as the California Floristic Province. While the designation process started with the identification of rare and endemic plants (species found nowhere else on Earth), it has grown to encompass animals and habitats. A great introduction to the work that defines the priorities to protect the most endangered and threatened species and habitats can be found in this video about the California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB), managed by the California Department of Fish and Game. You can find more information about CNDDB here.

Some of the endemic plant species unique to the Bay Area. Various sources under creative commons.

One of the most important results of this work has been identifying over 1,500 species of endemic plants and 60 species of vertebrate animals that are endemic to the region. And here is the most fantastic part: when we look at the invertebrates (insects, arachnids, worms, and such), the number of unique species found nowhere else in the world goes up to almost 9,000! And these are the ones we know about. There are perhaps thousands of species still to be discovered.

However, California has already lost more than 70% of the original habitats where these plants and animals lived. The urgency has been and is still high to protect these irreplaceable species. About 37% of the region is under some sort of protection now, which is excellent. But it is not enough. Witness the horrific fires that have affected California in the last few years (and this year in particular), most of which are happening in protected areas. Add to that the continued growth of our cities and towns and the impacts that urban encroachment, pollution (light, noise, trash, chemicals, etc.) have on these areas’ stability. Our region’s unique biodiversity is under real threat.

Some of the endemic animal species unique to the Bay Area. This graphic includes the Xerces blue, a beautiful species of lycaenid butterfly that lived in the sand dunes of the San Francisco Peninsula. It was declared extinct, last seen in the early 1940s. Various sources under creative commons.

But there is good news. We can do many things to help our threatened wildlife. Most of them are small changes in our habits and the management of our daily lives. For example, we can reduce or even eliminate the use of chemicals in our backyards, gardens, and homes. Things like pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides, and fertilizers can be replaced with more natural ways to control pests. Some of the ideas are quite clever and even amazing, such as putting up owl nesting boxes in your yard to invite owls to become your rodent control agents. We can also select California native plants appropriate to our neighborhoods and plant these in our yards. California species are beautiful and support other California species, such as some native bees, butterflies, and other insects.

We’ll share some of these home projects in the next few blog entries. Protecting California’s extraordinary flora and fauna is a source of pride for every citizen of the state. Protecting our unique species is just as important — or perhaps even more so — as protecting our historic places and our cultural jewels. Our biodiversity is an essential part of our heritage and our future.

Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director

  • You’ve captured the insidious threat that lately has been drowned out by current political tumult. The rate of accelerating disappearance of plants and animals, even those microscopic microbes, is sending the environment topsy-turvy, and not just to the detriment of flora and fauna. Nor to how our open spaces, parks, backyards remain viable for hikes and picnics. But much more threatening, how our dicey environment enables us, the default stewards, to continue thriving.

    • Thanks, Scott, for your comment. As you’ll see in upcoming blogs, we’ll explore ways to soften our footprint on natural habitats and their wildlife by providing friendly spaces in our backyards and in our parks and open spaces. Stay tuned!

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