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Many people don’t know what biodiversity means

The word "biodiversity" is so ubiquitous that its comprehension by the public is taken for granted—yet a great many people don’t even know what it means.
July 24, 2019

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Since being adopted by scientists in the mid-1980s, the word ‘biodiversity’ has become a default term for describing nature and its significance. We’re in the midst of a biodiversity crisis; biodiversity loss threatens human well-being; citizen scientists monitor their local biodiversity; and so on. The word is so ubiquitous that its comprehension by the public is taken for granted—yet a great many people don’t even know what it means.

“It seems prudent for communicators to use ‘biodiversity’ cautiously,” write ecologists led by Michael Weston of Australia’s Deakin University in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology. “At the very least, anyone using this term should provide a definition with it.”

Weston, joined by fellow Deakin ecologist Heather Kiley and Gillian Ainsworth of Charles Darwin University, prompted 499 demographically representative residents of the Australian state of Victoria with the question, “What does the term ‘biodiversity’ mean to you?”

Nearly 50 percent of the respondents either said they didn’t know what it meant, or furnished an answer that had little to do with the accepted scientific definition: a diversity of species, genetic heritage, and ecosystems. Some 18 percent mentioned either plants or animals, or described concepts like harmony and balance. That left just one-third with an understanding that tracked the scientific—and even they didn’t necessarily mention each of biodiversity’s three aspects.

When the researchers cross-referenced the results with demographic information, they found no relationship to income or sex. Only education had a significant effect, with two-thirds of people who’d attended college having at least a rough idea of what biodiversity is.

The researchers don’t speculate in their findings as to the consequences of this limited awareness for Australia’s biodiversity, which is declining at calamitous rates even as the country’s government is pilloried by conservationists for largely failing to take meaningful action. That so few people even comprehend what’s being lost can’t help, though.

“I suspect this is one contributor to Australia’s biodiversity extinction crisis,” Weston says. And Australia certainly isn’t alone: one survey found that only one-third of Europeans say they know what biodiversity is.

Given the importance of public engagement, Weston and colleagues recommend that conservation communicators do a better job of explaining what biodiversity means when speaking to general audiences, or else use more intuitive language. The “balance of life,” for example, or “richness of life,” may better resonate.

“Perhaps, like commercial marketing campaigns, governments and the science community need to express the concept of biodiversity in a variety of ways to maximise engagement,” they write. “More radically, the term could be avoided when engaging with the public.”

That would be radical indeed. Yet if—to paraphrase the oft-quoted Senegalese forester Baba Dioum—people only conserve what they love, and only love what they understand, the reliance of scientists and conservationists on a term that many people don’t understand is reason for concern.

Source: Kiley et al. “Modest levels of interpretability of the term ‘biodiversity’, mediated by educational level, among the Australian public.” Pacific Conservation Biology, 2019.

About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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