As simple as it is to understand the concept of biodiversity – the variety of species in an ecosystem – the reality is mind-blowingly complex. Organisms big and small can have tremendous effects on their habitats and relate to one another in surprising ways, such as microscopic fungi that help feed our biggest trees. This means that efforts to stall and even reverse ongoing declines in biodiversity require careful solutions and meticulous study of ecosystems and their occupants.

Peering in on the microbial world of nectar in one lab and modeling government programs in protected portions of the Amazon in another, Stanford’s research on biodiversity is, itself, diverse. Our researchers bring to light fundamental discoveries that help us define biodiversity and explore why species disappear. They also offer unique perspectives on how to conserve the natural world, taking into account how it is now and how it will likely be in the decades and centuries to come.

(Image credit: Natasha Batista)

Studying biodiversity

Even a single handful of dirt contains a variety of life. But how does the mix of microscopic organisms in that soil affect the plants around it? And how do those plants provide food for animals and store carbon? What happens if we lose one species of tree from a forest?

Figuring out how to define and measure biodiversity in the real world often leads to more questions than answers. At the same time, the answers this research does generate give us our best chances of producing solutions that can successfully address the complex challenges facing our ecosystem right now.

Learning through fieldwork on Pacific coral reefs

Stanford undergraduates study links between human and natural systems through an interdisciplinary seminar in Palau.

Animal biodiversity key part of carbon cycle

With abundant data on plants, large animals and their activity, and carbon soil levels in the Amazon, Stanford research suggests that large animal diversity influences carbon stocks and contributes to climate change mitigation.

Microbes in flower nectar affect pollination

Stanford’s community ecology lab has found that microbes in nectar can affect bird and insect interactions with the flowers and, as a result, whether they get pollinated.

DNA left by ocean animals provides rare glimpse of marine ecosystems

Now, scientists have shown these genetic clues can be used as forensic markers to accurately and easily survey marine life in complex deep-water environments.

New method of estimating biodiversity based on tree cover

Scientists used tree cover maps and on-the-ground observations to measure biodiversity in Costa Rica. The results generated a method of modeling biodiversity across tropical landscapes.

Learning through doing in Alaska

A powerful, immersive course at the edge of wilderness helps Stanford students understand the connections between humans, nature and sustainability.

Stanford biologists help solve fungi mysteries

A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate change.

Diverse forests are stronger against drought

Diversity reigns when water gets scarce. New research suggests the most resilient forests are made up of trees that have a wider variety of rates for water moving up from the soil.

To save native grasslands, study invasive species

The order of arrival determines which invasive grasses predominate, according to a combination of experiments and computational modeling. The results could help in efforts to preserve the native plants that remain.

Paleobiologist Jonathan Payne holds a whale vertebra.
(Image credit: Ker Than)

Threats to biodiversity

Looking back at the five mass extinction events that we know have happened on our planet, scientists warn that the sixth has already begun. The threats to biodiversity are many – including deforestation, climate change, and overconsumption of natural resources – and humans play an outsized role.

While some consequences of our actions are obvious, others are less clear. For example, how hunting large herbivores could lead to a boom in the population of small disease-carrying rodents and a reduction in seed dispersal. The more detail and context we can bring to our understanding of biodiversity, the better our odds of moving this grim trend of species loss in the other direction.

Border wall threatens biodiversity

Federal plans to complete a continuous wall along the U.S.-Mexico boundary would threaten the existence of numerous plant and animal species, Stanford researchers say. Paul Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo look at the region’s unique natural ecosystems, and what they have to lose.

Stanford biologists warn of prelude to extinction

In the first such global evaluation, Stanford biologists found more than 30 percent of all vertebrates have declining populations. They call for curbs on the basic drivers of these losses.

Stanford researchers find that the future of Antarctic marine protected areas is at risk

Efforts to adopt effective marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, a global commons containing the world’s most pristine marine ecosystems, are being thwarted by political infighting and fishing interests.

Stanford research shows how wave dynamics and water flows affect coral reefs

Understanding what aids or degrades these sensitive ecosystems can help focus conservation efforts on those reefs that are most likely to survive global warming.

Larger marine animals at higher risk of extinction, humans are to blame

In today’s oceans, larger-bodied marine animals are more likely to become extinct than smaller creatures, according to a Stanford-led report.

Stanford research details ‘one-two punch’ of climate and land use changes on certain species

Study highlights that paying attention to current and future regional climate can help decision-makers expand agriculture in ways that minimize harm to, and maybe even benefit, particular at-risk species.

Stanford researcher imagines a world without large, plant-eating animals

Stanford biologist Rodolfo Dirzo and a team of ecologists forecast enormous ecological, social and economic costs from the loss of large herbivores, but offer some solutions.

Stanford researcher says sixth mass extinction is here

Paul Ehrlich and others use conservative estimates to prove that species are disappearing faster than at any time since the dinosaurs' demise.

When did humans start influencing biodiversity? Earlier than we thought

Fossil study finds early human activity – not climate shifts – led to the systematic decline of large animals around the globe that predated human migration out of Africa. The findings add to concerns about continued biodiversity loss and the impact on ecosystems.

Climate change requires new conservation models, Stanford scientists say

In a world transformed by climate change and human activity, Stanford scientists say that conserving biodiversity and protecting species will require an interdisciplinary combination of ecological and social research methods.

Field kits
(Image credit: Elizabeth Hadly)

Biodiversity and conservation

Older concepts of conservation often assumed that maintaining biodiversity was about leaving nature alone or attempting to restore it to what it was before humans intervened. In some places, these methods may still be our best options but others require a more nuanced, future-focused approached.

In models that aim to predict the outcomes of land development, researchers also consider the influence of related social changes, such as abandoning taboo beliefs. They point out that keeping tigers from going extinct may be more about genetic diversity than number of cats. They push back against the instinct to pigeonhole human-made habitats and invasive species as bad or unnatural.

Multi-faceted solutions reflect the complex realities of the modern world and benefit from a wealth of data and information we’re able to gather about it.

New conservation approach

Findings show strong evidence for unique regions that divide plant and animal communities – a major development in centuries-long debate.

Environmental conservation efforts in China are making a positive impact, Stanford scientists say

A series of ambitious environmental policies that invest in natural capital are improving services provided by China’s ecosystems, such as flood control and sand storm mitigation, according to research conducted by an international team of scientists.

Making a living, sustainably

Stanford initiative reconciles perceived conflicts between human prosperity and protection of natural resources.

Diversified farming practices might preserve evolutionary diversity of wildlife, say Stanford and Berkeley biologists

A long-term study in Costa Rica has revealed that habitat destruction significantly reduces the incidence of evolutionarily distinct species. The research suggests alternative land-use practices that sustain farming and biodiversity.

Stanford computer model shows how modern interventions affect tropical forests, indigenous peoples

A computer simulation shows that carefully designing government interactions with rural indigenous people is critical for protecting the sustainability of people, wildlife and the land.

Stanford scientists challenge theory on protection of threatened species

Instead of simply concentrating conservation efforts on threatened species, resource managers and policymakers should consider ecosystem-wide impacts, study’s authors write.

Stanford researchers rethink ‘natural’ habitat for wildlife

Protecting wildlife while feeding a world population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050 will require a holistic approach to conservation that considers human-altered landscapes such as farmland, according to Stanford researchers.

Diverse gene pool critical for tigers’ survival, say Stanford scholars

Increasing tigers’ genetic diversity – via interbreeding and other methods – and not just their population numbers may be the best solution to saving this endangered species, according to Stanford research.