All creatures great and small
By Cynthia Lee
With the United Nations declaring 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, the Feb. 15 launch of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science (QCBS) couldn’t have been timed better. Hosted by McGill’s Department of Biology, the virtual centre brings together more than 60 scientists from eight academic institutions (McGill, Bishop’s, Concordia, Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Université du Québec à Montréal, Université Laval and Université de Sherbrooke) in collaboration with the Montreal Botanical Garden and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Andrew Gonzalez, a Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and the first director of the QCBS, has worked for three years to get the Centre up and running. Now that his hard work has come to fruition, the British-born biologist sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk all things nature.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the “full variety of life on Earth.” More specifically, biodiversity is the study of the processes that create and maintain variation. It is concerned with the variety of individuals within populations, the diversity of species within communities, and the range of ecological roles within ecosystems.
What are the goals of the QCBS?
The QCBS’s aim is to provide a source of research and training excellence in order to foster biodiversity science for the scientific community, government and the general public of Quebec.
Obviously, many of our goals are research-specific. Biodiversity science is still in its infancy. To achieve world-class science we need to pull together the best people in the field.
We are also looking to generate a greater understanding of the issues. We have to make it clear why individuals should care about biodiversity.
What will the QCBS focus on?
Our research is set up on three axes: to discover new biodiversity, especially in the Canadian North; to find the causes of and consequences of biodiversity changes, and determine the impact of extinctions and invasive species; and, finally, to determine how biodiversity loss impacts the social sciences, such as economics, since many economies depend on the environment.
How did you become interested in biodiversity?
It began as a five-year-old, when my grandparents gave me the book “Life on Earth,” by David Attenborough. While I couldn’t read well, I was enthralled with the pictures. Six months later, my granny asked me “So, Andrew what do you want to be when you grow up?” I said I wanted to be a zoologist.
What caught your attention?
It was always pond life. It was taking a drop from a green and muddy pond and looking at it under a microscope and seeing that that tiny drop was teaming with life. It was the things I know now are amoeba, protozoa, small crustaceans and zoo plankton – things that were alive.
Does this love of nature run in the family?
No. I come from a family of linguists – everyone speaks two or three languages and plays multiple instruments. I’m the black sheep, the right-brainer. For a while they tried to push me toward languages, but I was always drawn back to the sciences.
How have things changed since you began your studies?
There have been a lot of changes, enormous fluctuations in the abundance of very common organisms, and of course invasive species like the grey squirrel that came into the U.K. and increased greatly. Certain rare species which I observed as a child became extinct in the U.K. including the red squirrel and birds like the corncrake.
What kind of shape are we in terms of biodiversity?
Scientists can predict what we call a “species loss rate” by knowing how much of a habitat is being destroyed, because there is an empirical law that defines how fast species are lost as increasing amounts of habitat are lost. Calculations suggest that the rate of species loss and the current extinction rate are now approaching 1,000 times the prehistoric extinction rate before humanity became a major environmental force. This rate is predicted to climb to 10,000 times the background rate during the next century, if present trends continue. At this rate, one-third to two-thirds of all species of plants, animals, and other organisms would be lost during the second half of the next century, a loss that would equal those of past extinctions.
How serious is this?
It is very serious because the rate is so incredibly fast – the rate of species disappearing is faster than we have ever experienced as humans. To get our point across, we express the extinction crisis in charismatic organisms like panda bears. We know what it means to lose them. But behind the disappearance of these charismatic organisms there are thousands of other species such as insects, microbes, plants, all crucial to the cycle of life that are disappearing.
How does this intersect with your research?
My work is about extinction and the disappearance of the last individual of a species. But this can happen on many scales. For example, you can say the last individual of a certain species has become extinct in Quebec, as there are lots more extinctions happening on a local level. Local extinctions will lead to a global extinction; it belies a much more serious problem.
What are the main factors contributing to biodiversity loss?
Habitat destruction or transformation, the cutting down of forests is paramount; invasive species, pollution – and of course climate change, this is a big one in the next 50 years. Predictions state that we may suffer up to 30 per cent of extinction due to climate change alone.
Why is it hard to get buy-in?
Everyone gets that there are charismatic species that are endangered – like panda bears. But we can’t see the majority of biodiversity loss – microbes, insects, small plants and coral reefs that are shrinking every day. But these are important, essential to our ecosystem. These make the world go ‘round.
What is the significance of the UN naming 2010 the Year of Biodiversity?
It means that this year is a critical year to turn the science into policy. We must take action now. There are a lot of things this year that are coming up, such as the formation of a kind of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for biodiversity loss. Our equivalent is taking shape now under the UN and is called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Interface on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This is part of the reason why I am so excited about our centre, that we can provide a common voice that may be used to build arguments for politicians to protect biodiversity.
What can individuals do to do their part for biodiversity?
Simply going out to visiting places such as the Gault Reserve and paying the entrance fee, it goes into an enormous network.
There’s so much around us. For instance, the Montérégie Mountains – the chain of mountains that goes out to Oka – is full of life. Or, if you prefer, go east for a topography and altitude change by taking the train to Schefferville and witness an amazing slice of Quebec boreal forest and tundra.
Andrew Gonzalez’s first job
I cleaned bars and pubs in England. I worked in the early mornings mopping and scrubbing, cleaning tables in these watering holes before they opened again. It taught me the value of hard work and money and helped me get through my degree. I had two separate jobs working in two different pubs in the early morning; I’d spend six hours a day tidying up.