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  • Writer's pictureJenni Foshey

Oh, You Study Conservation Biology...What's That?

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Whenever people ask me “what are you studying in school?” and I respond with Conservation Biology they look at me like I said something in a different language. This happens with just about everyone that asks me. Since I always discuss conservation in a lot of my blog posts, I figured it’s probably a good idea to actually tell my readers what it is. So, without further ado, here’s a quick intro to Conservation Biology. 


When I try to describe conservation biology to people in simple terms, I say things like “It’s kinda like environmental science. Saving the Planet. Protecting wildlife and natural resources. Climate change. Endangered species protection.” And sometimes I add in “It’s kinda like what Steve Irwin did” and then they get it. 

In more professional and correct terms, conservation biology is a field of biology that is crisis-oriented and has a holistic approach to problems (Soulé, 1985).  Soulé (1985) also defines conservation biology as dealing with species biology, ecosystem concerns related to human pressure, providing information to organizations on ecological health (pollution, invasive species, etc..), and implementing wildlife management strategies among many other works. 


So far, I am halfway through my track of earning my Bachelor of Science degree in Conservation Biology. In the two years of my studies so far, an overarching theme for conservation biology is preservation of biodiversity. “What is biodiversity?” many people question. Breaking it down, “bio” means life and “diversity” essentially means variance; so, biodiversity is referring to the variety of life on Earth.  Biodiversity, though, can be used in many ways. Biodiversity as a global term refers to the diversity and of organisms on Earth, while there are other focuses such as species diversity, ecosystem diversity, and genetic diversity (Hunter and Gibbs, 2006). As a simple definition, biodiversity is the “variety of life” (Gaston and Spicer, 2013) and is right up there with the climate crisis in terms of conservation priority. 


Starting to make sense? If not, take this example. Let’s say that a region (let’s call it region A) has 100 different species and another region (region B) has 40 species. Which one would be more biologically diverse? Hopefully you’ve picked region A. Region A has more species variance which is a general indicator of ecosystem health. Low biodiversity is concerning to conservation biologists because it means that ecosystems are more at risk of collapse. Besides this, low biodiversity can be bad for the economy, food security, and disease transmission (World Wildlife Fund, n.d).

How do conservation biologists measure biodiversity? Biodiversity can be counted in terms of species richness (the number of individuals or number of species in an area- also the most used currency for biodiversity), biochemistry, genetics, evolutionary history, morphology, physiology, ecological role, or even biogeography (Gaston and Spicer, 2013). 

Genetic diversity is an extremely important factor to consider in the field of conservation biology. To illustrate its importance, consider Tasmanian devils. Tasmanian devils are a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss, hunting, invasive species, and disease (Asher, 2017). 


Tasmanian devils have very low genetic diversity, which is extremely unfortunate because they also are dealing with a quick-spreading facial tumor disease. These cute critters are aggressive with one another and bite each other's faces while fighting. Since they are so insanely genetically similar, their immune systems do not recognize the foreign (cancer) cells. More specifically, their MHC proteins are not able to identify the (cancerous) cell as foreign (Asher, 2017). This further accentuates the fact that a population of genetically diverse Tasmanian devils would be healthier because their immune systems would differ and therefore be better able to detect the cancer cells.  

The Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease is a conservation concern because devils with the disease have a 100% mortality rate (San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, 2017). Since the late 1990’s, the devil population has dramatically dropped ~85% and is now on the IUCN Red List as endangered (San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, 2017). Luckily, organizations, programs, and zoos worldwide have taken charge on the issue. For instance, the San Diego Zoo has implemented a breeding program and recovery and release initiatives to increase genetic diversity in devil populations. Why? Because genetic diversity is an important component of biodiversity, which is the main goal of conservation biology. 


Another question I get asked often is "what kind of job are you going to get?"....

Well, stay tuned for a future blog post specifically for conservation careers and paths :)


As for now, I hope you have gotten the gist of what conservation biology is and why it is so important to me and millions of other people.

 

References 


Asher, C. (2017, March 22). Earth - How the Tasmanian devil has responded to infectious cancers. 


Gaston, K. J., & Spicer, J. I. (2013). Biodiversity: an introduction. John Wiley & Sons.


Hunter Jr, M. L., & Gibbs, J. P. (2006). Fundamentals of conservation biology. John Wiley & Sons.


Soulé, M. E. (1985). What is conservation biology? BioScience, 35(11), 727-734.


San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Tasmanian Devil. (2017, February 26). Retrieved 


World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). How does Biodiversity loss affect me and everyone else? Retrieved May 22, 

2020, from https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/biodiversity/biodiversity_and_you/

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