Nov 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Youth Blog

“Biodiversity” is a term that’s somewhat hard to define…if you break it down, “bio” = life and “diversity” = variety. So “biodiversity” is basically just the variety of life, right? Well, yes, but it’s often not so simple to measure that variety. I’ll give you an example. I’m part of a research project studying a genus of plant called Pelargonium that’s mainly from South Africa… but I’m sure you’ve probably seen it growing in your neighborhood. Why? Because one species called Pelargonium x hortorum is what you might grow in your garden… it’s just a boring old geranium! 

If all Pelargoniums  looked like that, the genus would probably not be too interesting. However, the kind you grow in your garden is only one species out of, get this, at least 290! And if that’s not diverse enough for you, here’s some more amazing facts about this group of plants: leaves range from completely round to giant and feathery; meanwhile, flowers usually have five petals but can also have 4 or 2 or, in the “garden” kinds, can have 10 or 15 petals! The flowers also come in white, pink, red, purple, or even brown; one species, P. tricolor, is exactly what it sounds like – the two upper petals are a deep red, the bottom ones are white, and the center is purple!

So as a biologist it’s often nice to say that the genus is as diverse as the number of species, 290, but often that really can’t capture all of the real “variety of life.” After all, there are almost twice as many species in Poa, the genus that contains most of what we think of as “grass,” and I personally think that Pelargonium is much more diverse, in terms  of appearance. 

Why does diversity matter? Well,  for instance, as a conservationist, if you have to choose just one area to protect out of several possible areas you’d  like to protect, a standard rule of thumb is to use species number to measure diversity and go for the area with the greatest number. But at least for Pelargonium, that doesn’t capture anything like the whole diversity of the genus. So if you ever feel like science is “set in stone,” think of biodiversity, and please know, scientists can be just as confused as anyone else. 😉

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