04.27.08

Notes on Biodiversity

Posted in Book, Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Pollution at 12:29 pm by justakim

There is a new book explaining how the loss of biodiversity will impact the discovery and development of new drugs. What makes this notable is that this is not just E.O. Wilson’s Discovery of Life. This book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity is composed not by environmentalists or entomologists, but by medical doctors at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The book demonstrates the value of biodiversity in previous discoveries, and covers several areas that show promise for new drugs, including cases where the species went extinct before the drug potential could be realized, and more cases where this may yet happen. Time to put a few frogs aside. It looks like it has a solid overview of what biodiversity is, why it matters, and what affects it. The book will be out in June.

One species that was not on the list for drug potential is the finless porpoise. While it has a pretty wide range along the coast, there is only one freshwater population that lives in the Yangtze River and two connected Poyang and Dongting Lakes. In addition to habitat degradation, a recent study finds that they are suffering from high levels of pollution.

While the focus of this study was on pollution, the situation is quite precarious. Dongting Lake relies on overflow from the Yangtze River and it swells and shrinks with the seasons. The Three Gorges Dam, which was built upstream of the lake, also has the function of flood control. Regulated flow and trapping of sediment must have drastically changed the functioning of the lake.

What makes this news so unpleasant to me is that I didn’t even know they existed. The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was pretty much expected when the Three Gorges Dam project began. It is probably more significant to lose a species than a population, but I was not aware there was much else of note. To lose something only as you learn it is there…

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