The challenge: Identifying existing biodiversity, understanding how it is changing and why

Knowledge about the diversity of life on our planet remains limited and fragmentary: as much as 80 per cent of existing species are, as yet, undiscovered and/or undescribed. This is particularly true of unexplored regions of the world and of small organisms such as bacteria, protists and arthropods.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the world is experiencing rapid changes in biodiversity—even in those taxonomic groups and locations that are well described. Often, this results from increasing human activities. Demographic, cultural, political and economic factors are known to have reduced and restructured salud habitats, thereby altering the distribution and abundance of species. Ultimately, this can lead to changes in the chemical composition of soils, water and the atmosphere that affect the biogeochemical cycles, which regulate ecosystem functions and services. Clearly, there is a need for improving our capacity to effectively monitor and assess biodiversity change and loss.

This area of research holds an additional challenge: most of the world’s richest zones of biodiversity are found within developing regions, where both financial and human resources are weakest—particularly in terms of adequately trained personnel to carry out scientific investigation.
DIVERSITAS’ response

The first aim of bioDISCOVERY is to advance efforts to measure and describe biodiversity at the level of genes, species and ecosystems. This is a fundamental step in the broader goals of improving our capacity to recognize change and loss, and to find out why it is occurring. This basic knowledge will better equip scientists to probe the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (ecoSERVICES) and to develop appropriate social mechanisms to support more sustainable use of Earth’s natural resources (bioSUSTAINABILITY).
Assessing current biodiversity – In order to advance the state of knowledge of biodiversity, it is important to develop, validate and integrate new approaches. This focus will try to link taxonomic information to data on functional ecology and other relevant attributes while also synthesizing collection-based information technology with spatial sampling design and geographic mapping efforts.

Strengthen taxonomic expertise in understudied taxa and regions
increase cutting-edge methods and techniques.
Establish phyloinformatics as the backbone of integrated biological databases.
Fill in the gaps, making maximal use of museum collections while optimising new data collecting efforts.
facilitate access to biological specimens and data.
Monitoring biodiversity change – There is an urgent need to build a cost-effective and scientifically robust observation system to monitor change and quantify the impacts of pressures acting on biodiversity. This network will enable researchers to identify and quantify the drivers of such change and to better understand both the causative processes and the ultimate consequences for ecosystem function and human use.

Assess the adequacy of ongoing and proposed monitoring methods and programmes
review research on biodiversity monitoring
create network of biodiversity observatories
standardise monitoring methods
develop scientifically rigorous biodiversity indicators
Understanding and predicting biodiversity change – As a means of examining the anthropogenic drivers of biodiversity change, Focus 3 will seek to develop theoretical, experimental and empirical knowledge of ecological and evolutionary processes related to biodiversity. In this context, it will investigate how changes in the pattern and intensity of resource use affects ecological structures and processes. The final goal is to develop capacities to predict future biodiversity change.

develop adequate understanding of the origins and dynamics
identify the anthropogenic drivers of change in biodiversity
assess the impacts of human activities on biodiversity
develop the capacity to predict future change

Biodiversity: towards a whole planet

What Is Biodiversity?

In essence, biological diversity or biodiversity is the sum of all life on Earth. It includes the vast array of life forms, their individual genetic makeup, their life processes, and their interrelationships in communities and ecosystems. Peter H. Rogan, Director of the Botanical Garden offers this more eloquent definition:

“At the simplest level, biodiversity is the sum total of all the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms in the world, or in a particular area; all of their individual variation; and all of the interactions between them. It is the set of living organisms that make up the fabric of the planet Earth and allow it to function as it does, by capturing energy from the sun and using it to drive all of life’s processes; by forming communities of organisms that have, through several billion years on Earth, altered the nature of the atmosphere, the soil and the water of our planet; and by making possible the sustainability of our planet through their life activities now.”

Biodiversity Studies

According to Edward O. Wilson, a world-renowned scientist and researcher, biodiversity emerged as a scientific discipline during the last 25 years in response to two important events: the realization that human activity threatens the extinction of many plant and animal species either directly or indirectly, by habitat destruction, and the recognition that we have the ability to end that process at minimal cost to human welfare. Biodiversity studies are a hybrid discipline, drawing on both evolutionary biology and biotechnology in “the systematic examination of the full array of organisms and the origin of this diversity, together with the technology by which diversity can be maintained and utilized for the benefit of humanity.”

Levels Of Biodiversity

Biodiversity is commonly studied at three levels: genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity.

Genetic Diversity

Genetic diversity refers to the different genetic makeup up of individual plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms. It includes both genetic variation within a single species and between different species.

Species Diversity

Species diversity is, simply, the variety of species. It includes all the differences within and between species populations, as well as among different species. Species diversity is often used to mean “species richness,” or the number of different species present in a specific habitat. However, it can also be measured in terms of either “species abundance” – the relative population sizes among various species – or “taxonomic diversity” — the genetic linkages between different groups of species. (To learn more about how organisms are classified, follow links from our Biodiversity Reference Material Page to the Sidwell School’s Classification Lab website)

Most discussions on biodiversity focus on species diversity. Evolution occurs at the species level, and the origination and extinction of species are the primary factors impacting biological diversity.

Ecosystem Diversity

Ecosystem diversity is more difficult to define than the other two levels of biodiversity. It comprises the many differences among ecosystem types, including diversity of habitats and ecological processes. In practice, ecosystem diversity can only be evaluated on a local or regional basis, rather than on a global scale; however, even this assessment is difficult due to the ever-changing boundaries of ecological communities and ecosystems.

Number of Species

Approximately 1.7 million species have so far been identified and scientifically described, but this represents only a fraction of life on Earth. The United Nations’ 1995 Global Biodiversity Assessment estimated the total number of species at 14 million, although other estimates range from 5 million to more than 100 million!

Microorganisms and insects are thought to comprise the largest numbers of species. Insects alone are estimated to account for between 2 and 100 million species, with a working estimate within the scientific community of 8 million. Of the 100 species of animals described to date, approximately 750,000 are insects.

Scientists are working to classify and describe additional species, but it is a slow and painstaking process. For example, as many as half the plant species of Colombia’s Chocó region, including trees and shrubs, do not have a scientific name. On occasion, even new species of mammals are discovered, such as the Chinese muntjac, a kind of deer, and the sun-tailed guenon, a monkey found in Gabon. Most recently, in April 2000, the Amazon National Research institute announced the discovery of two new monkey species in northwestern Brazil.

Measuring Biodiversity

The history of life on Earth spans approximately 3.75 billion years, the last 600 million years of which has seen a tremendous growth in biodiversity. At that time, the Earth underwent a major ecological transformation. The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere increased dramatically, and a shield of ozone was created in the stratosphere, providing protection from harmful ultraviolet radiation. These changes permitted the emergence of larger animals in the Earth’s oceans and proliferation of plants, and later, animals on land surfaces. With the exception of a plateau reached during the Mesozoic Era, this diversity of life forms continued to grow, and Earth’s biodiversity is now at or near its peak.

Every life form plays a role in ecosystem processes, although both the nature and scope of its functions will vary. The contribution of a single species to biodiversity is frequently measured in two ways. The first is its taxonomic significance; that is to say that the more different a species is – or the more isolated in the taxonomic hierarchy used to classify species – the greater its contribution to the overall measure of global biodiversity. The second measure focuses on the impact of a particular species on an ecological community. So-called “keystone species” are those whose role within the ecosystem is so great that their removal from the local or regional ecosystem will have a disproportionate effect.

Recent experimental studies have shown that overall ecosystem productively declines as the number of species in the community decreases. This loss of productivity is most dramatic in managed ecosystems – such as crop growing lands and timber plantations – where the variety of species is particularly small. The findings of the one available long-term field study on plant species richness also indicate that reductions in plant species diversity lowered the ecosystem’s resistance to drought.

Researchers have identified two possible explanations for this relationship between plant diversity and productivity. The first, called the “sampling effect,” relies on basic probability, i.e., greater the number of species present, the more likely some will be species with higher levels of contributions to ecosystem functioning. The second proposed explanation is the “complementarity effect,” where increased diversity leads to an increase in the number of species which are complementary rather than competitive in their use of available resources. This creates a more efficient and productive ecological community.

Ecosystem processes are driven by the combined activities of all the species which comprise that community, and reductions in species diversity can severely diminish its productivity. However, it is as yet impossible to predict how the loss of any single species will impact the overall ecological balance – or how it may affect the welfare of man.

The Global Taxonomy Initiative: results of the call for proposals 2004


The purpose of the Global Taxonomy Initiative is to remove or reduce the ‘taxonomic impediment’ – in other words, the knowledge gaps in our taxonomic system, the shortage of trained taxonomists and curators, and the impact these deficiencies have on our ability to preserve biodiversity.

To give impetus to some of these objectives, the Belgian Focal Point for the GTI (the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) works via calls for proposals. In 2004, it launched two calls for proposals:

  1. Call for taxonomy-based individual and institutional capacity building projects
    This call was open to developing countries.
  2. Call for taxonomy-based research projects
    This call was open to research projects with included a RBINS promotor.

Taxonomy-based individual and institutional capacity building

The support is targeted to institutions or individuals from developing countries in need of taxonomic and curatorial training. Such training should invariably have a clearly identified output in terms of increased taxonomic and/or curatorial capacity for the developing country or its region.

The GTI focal point received more than 30 expressions of interest, 11 formal proposals, and, finally selected 8 projects. Budgetary constraints were among the reasons not to select more projects.

The candidates cover a wide range of taxa or discipline of expertise (see below) and their backgrounds include researchers and technicians, as well as a person in charge of coordinating a taxonomic network. Duration of stay in Belgium ranges from one week to a little over a month.


Candidates selected for the call in March 2004:

Name Country Taxon / discipline of expertise Place of training in Belgium
SOIFA Ahmed Soilih Comoros Holothuroidea (sea cucumbers)
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels) and Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tervuren)

YAHAYA Ibrahim Comoros Holothuroidea (sea cucumbers)
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels) and Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tervuren)

DE MORAES PL Rodrigues Brazil Magnoliopsida (plants, focus on Lauraceae)
National Botanic Garden (Meise)

LUM Keng-Yeang Malaysia (ASEANET) Invertebrates and micro-organisms
Networking Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels)

WETSI LOFETE Jean Lambert DR Congo Diptera (flies, mosquitoes, etc.), Lepidoptera (butterflies)
Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tervuren)

CUERVO PINEDA Delfina Naomi Cuba Acari (mites)
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels)

NGEREZA Christine Fishaa Tanzania Pulmonata (snails and slugs)
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels)

GNAVOSSOU Desire Benin Diptera (flies, mosquitoes, etc.)
Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tervuren)


Taxonomy-based research projects

The support offered is seed money to initiate new capacity building initiatives within existing biodiversity research projects, or financial support to undergoing capacity building initiatives, in developing countries.

Projects can be undertaken with other institutions and universities, but the promoter must be a RBINS researcher and the project must involve RBINS expertise.

Four projects were submitted, three of which were granted funding in 2004.

Taxonomy-based research projects selected in 2004:

RBINS promotor Partner country Partner institution
Herpetological Species Richness and Community Structure on the Kaieteur National Park Tepui G. Lenglet, Ph. Kok (Vertebrate Section) Guyana CEIBA Biological Center

Biodiversity assessment at three protected areas in northwest Cambodia P. Grootaert (Entomology Department) Cambodia Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation (Siem Reap)

Training Program for the Study of Biodiversity and Management of Rodents and Shrews in Eastern Congo (Kisangani) E. Verheyen (Vertebrate Section) DR Congo Laboratoire d’Ecologie et de Gestion des Resources Animales (University of Kisangani)
The specific convention between the Belgian Development Cooperation and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (2003-2007) aims to contribute to a better knowledge of biodiversity and to reach a better implementation of international environmental conventions in developing countries.

Action 2 focuses on the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) established under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The purpose of the GTI is to remove or reduce the ‘taxonomic impediment’ – in other words, the knowledge gaps in our taxonomic system, the shortage of trained taxonomists and curators, and the impact these deficiencies have on our ability to preserve biodiversity.

• More information on taxonomy and on the GTI
• Specific convention between DGDC and RBINS

Type of support
Seed money is available for institutions or individuals from developing countries in need of taxonomic and curatorial training. Such training should invariably have a clearly identified output in terms of increased taxonomic and/or curatorial capacity for the developing country or its region.
Estimated number of supported projects
In 2004, the funding available to grant seekers is roughly 25.000 €. This amount will rise in following years. Funding covers both visits of trainees to Belgium, as well as visits of the Belgian tutor for the GTI (or equivalent, taxon-or subject dependent, tutor) to developing countries.
Amount of DGDC support per project
The funding should allow up to ten researchers to come over to Belgium to receive training in 2004. From 2005 to 2007, as more funding will become available, the number of visiting trainees will increase significantly.
Given the limited funding available, trainees are encouraged to seek additional funds from other funding bodies. The Belgian tutor for the GTI (or equivalent, taxon-or subject dependent, tutor) will annually carry out two to three training sessions on specific modules (each lasting one to two weeks) upon demand of partner countries.
The Belgian Development Cooperation has chosen to have privileged relations with 18 partner countries, mainly in Africa (Algeria, Benin, Burundi, DR Congo, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Uganda, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania), but also in South America (Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru), Asia (Vietnam) and the Middle East (Palestine).

Figure: Belgium’s priority partners for development cooperation.
Individuals and institutes from other developing countries are nevertheless eligible to receive support and training.

Content requirements
The capacity building should focus on:
• taxonomic or parataxonomic training (with a priority to extant zoological taxa)
• collections establishment and/or management (including local/regional collections)
• tools for the study of biodiversity (e.g. molecular methods for species identification) or to apply biodiversity data (e.g. taxonomic keys)
Note: the Belgian Development Cooperation has identified priority sectors of the Belgian cooperation in its ‘Environmental strategic note’ in 2003 and in its ‘General policy note for 2004’. Projects addressing those issues will have an advantage.
Project period
Dependant on number and type of projects received annually.

Submission instructions
Complete application form in English or French should reach the Belgian tutor of the GTI no later than March 31st or November 30th to be eligible for the period May 2004 to March 2005.
Indicative timeline for review of proposals and execution of pilots
1 March 2004
Call for proposals distributed through Belgian CHM
31 March / 30 November 2004
Proposals due
1 -15 April /1 -15 December 2004
Proposals reviewed
20 April / 20 December 2004
Successful applicants contacted
May to July 2004 / January to March 2005
Execution of visits of trainees to Belgium
1 September 2004 / 1 May 2005
Reports of trainees due
October to December 2004 / March to April 2005
Visit of Belgian tutor (or equivalent) to partner country
Principles by which proposals will be reviewed
They will be based on the selection criteria on application form.