Biodiversity research at Stanford

Truly grasping the importance of biodiversity means diving down into the microscopic organisms in our soils and out to human social relationships affecting our ecosystems. The more we know, the better we can address threats to species diversity.

As simple as it is to understand the concept of biodiversity - the variety of species in an ecosystem - the reality is mind-blowingly complex. Organisms big and small can have tremendous effects on their habitats and relate to one another in surprising ways, such as microscopic fungi that help feed our biggest trees. This means that efforts to stall and even reverse ongoing declines in biodiversity require careful solutions and meticulous study of ecosystems and their occupants.

Peering in on the microbial world of nectar in one lab and modeling government programs in protected portions of the Amazon in another, Stanford’s research on biodiversity is, itself, diverse. Our researchers bring to light fundamental discoveries that help us define biodiversity and explore why species disappear. They also offer unique perspectives on how to conserve the natural world, taking into account how it is now and how it will likely be in the decades and centuries to come.

Even a single handful of dirt contains a variety of life. But how does the mix of microscopic organisms in that soil affect the plants around it? And how do those plants provide food for animals and store carbon? What happens if we lose one species of tree from a forest?

Figuring out how to define and measure biodiversity in the real world often leads to more questions than answers. At the same time, the answers this research does generate give us our best chances of producing solutions that can successfully address the complex challenges facing our ecosystem right now.

Looking back at the five mass extinction events that we know have happened on our planet, scientists warn that the sixth has already begun. The threats to biodiversity are many - including deforestation, climate change, and overconsumption of natural resources - and humans play an outsized role.

While some consequences of our actions are obvious, others are less clear. For example, how hunting large herbivores could lead to a boom in the population of small disease-carrying rodents and a reduction in seed dispersal. The more detail and context we can bring to our understanding of biodiversity, the better our odds of moving this grim trend of species loss in the other direction.

Older concepts of conservation often assumed that maintaining biodiversity was about leaving nature alone or attempting to restore it to what it was before humans intervened. In some places, these methods may still be our best options but others require a more nuanced, future-focused approached.

In models that aim to predict the outcomes of land development, researchers also consider the influence of related social changes, such as abandoning taboo beliefs. They point out that keeping tigers from going extinct may be more about genetic diversity than number of cats. They push back against the instinct to pigeonhole human-made habitats and invasive species as bad or unnatural.

Multi-faceted solutions reflect the complex realities of the modern world and benefit from a wealth of data and information we’re able to gather about it.

Environmental conservation efforts in China are making a positive impact, Stanford scientists say

Diversified farming practices might preserve evolutionary diversity of wildlife, say Stanford and Berkeley biologists

Stanford computer model shows how modern interventions affect tropical forests, indigenous peoples

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