A Biodiversity mission, Biodiv'AMU, has just been created at Aix-Marseille University. This cause has become central at the global level because biodiversity is in great danger. We must be aware that the damage to biodiversity is a direct cause of the pandemic that has hit us.
Everyone can contribute to this cause to the extent of his or her availability and interests; the preservation of biodiversity is everyone's business, at least in his or her own area of life. But we must be able to understand and identify biodiversity. We take care more willingly of what we like and to like it we must know it. This is why Biodiv'AMU aims to mobilize all students and staff of our university on this essential cause. We want to involve as many of our campuses as possible through participatory science actions such as inventories, field workshops, shared nature areas, conferences, the exploitation and production of natural foods (beehive products, olive oil), participatory vegetable gardens, and any other initiative. Activities or associations already exist on several campuses. Our objective is to federate energies, encourage existing initiatives and generalize them on the scale of our great university.
The past year has not been conducive to the launch of field activities, but we will start stronger in 2021-2022.
" Only one species is responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic: ours", (J. Settele, S. Díaz, E. Brondizio and P. Daszak, IPBES press release, 27 April 2020).
What is biodiversity?
In our communication society, certain words become emblems of causes to be defended or fought for. The process of symbolic appropriation of these words by the general public leads to abuses. The concept of biodiversity is a perfect example of this risk of semantic "blurring" when the media take it over.
For a non-specialist, biodiversity is often the possibility of observing many animal and plant species around him. This implicit definition has a "decorative" connotation, and the desire to preserve this diversity of life can be easily contested by those who believe that the disappearance of a few species will only bother "conservative" naturalists concerned with preserving the integrity of the "catalogue" of life, just as one carefully preserves a museum collection. There is this idea that progress inevitably involves a bit of "breakage" in the living world, whether non-human or even human (cf. the numerous health scandals linked to pesticides in the countries of the South).
Climate change, the other major ecological cause that receives more media attention and gives rise to a global awareness, has the advantage of being translated into figures that can be understood by everyone. Predicting a few degrees more on average speaks to everyone because it refers to a shared sensitive experience. Moreover, it is easier to get a state or a large company to make a "gesture" for the climate by acting to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels than to act for biodiversity, which is impacted in a much more varied and insidious way by deleterious actions at different levels. Deforestation, the expansion of intensive agriculture, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species, are all attacks on biodiversity that respond to economic, social and even cultural needs. Combating climate change will therefore not be enough to resolve the issue of environmental damage.
Translating the erosion of biodiversity into figures makes one dizzy: 10% of insect species and 25% of all species are threatened with extinction in the medium and short term. The rate of species extinction is 100 to 1000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction. In France, 19% of species are threatened or extinct.
To understand why biodiversity must be preserved, we must first define it clearly: the diversity of all living organisms as well as all the relationships and interactions that exist, on the one hand, between the living organisms themselves, and, on the other hand, between these organisms and their living environments. Biodiversity is therefore inseparable from ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. We can distinguish three levels of biodiversity: those of individuals (genetic diversity), species (specific diversity) or living environments (ecosystem diversity). Genetic diversity makes it possible to adapt to environmental changes and thus ensure the survival of living organisms.
Why preserve biodiversity?
Many species have an immediate and quantifiable impact on the environment; let's take the example of pollinating insects, whose disappearance would irreparably destabilize ecosystems. Other species seem to have a more limited impact on their ecosystems; but it is almost impossible to anticipate the cascading effects produced by the disappearance of one species or the uncontrolled proliferation of another. The particularity of the human species is its deleterious impact in the very short term on certain species, which does not allow the ecosystem to quickly recover a virtuous balance.
Two examples of the consequences of negative human impacts on biodiversity:
- Concerning deforestation, it is inductive to think that retreating the forest in tropical areas is also eradicating malaria. On the contrary, research has shown that a 10% increase in deforestation, i.e. about 1600 square kilometres of additional logging, resulted in a 3.3% increase in the rate of malaria transmission (MacDonald, 2008).
- Pesticide use in agriculture has long had a serious impact on species. The effects of organochlorine pesticides, particularly di-chloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane (DDT), are well known on Peregrine Falcons. DDT has several deleterious effects: damage to the nervous system leading to maladaptive behaviour unfavourable to the species, sterility or direct mortality, disruption of calcium transfers from eggshells leading to a decrease in density or even thinning of the shell (more frequent breakage) and, to a lesser degree, a teratogenic effect on embryos and young (Ratcliffe, 1993). The example of the peregrine falcon is a perfect illustration of how a physical substance with no immediate effect on the climate can seriously alter the survival of a species, like neonicotinoids for bees.
The current pandemic, a major consequence of the erosion of biodiversity.
With reference to the introductory sentence, we can consider that different processes have created the "perfect conditions" for the spread of diseases from wildlife to humans:
- The destruction of environments - thus ecosystems - resulting in the release of living organisms - including pathogens - previously neutralized by stable biological relationships for millennia.
- Deforestation and soil artificialisation, by depriving them of food, lead many wild species to move closer to urban areas.
- The connection between (i) the intensive breeding of domesticated species that are genetically impoverished and vulnerable to numerous pathologies: through ignorance of genetics, we involuntarily select the capacity of certain species to carry potentially mutable pathogens, and, (ii) the exploitation of wild species captured and/or bred for human consumption or fur often crowded in conditions where stress, through the depression of the immune system, favours the circulation of "novel" pathogens in urbanised areas.
- The transfer between species and the mutation of pathogens that reach humans with potential variants/mutants in the making.
- The explosive growth of long-distance travel in recent decades indirectly increases the risk of unpredictable mutations by transferring pathogens to ecosystems radically different from those of origin, thus increasing the randomness of their mutations.
"An estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect humans are present in mammals and aquatic birds. Any one of them could be the next 'disease X' - potentially even more disruptive and deadly than Covid-19" (Settele, 2020)
Biodiversity: knowing it to preserve it
Once the nature of biodiversity and the need to preserve it have been emphasized, it is not easy for non-specialists to grasp. This point is important because in order to be motivated to take living beings into account, one must be able to identify them in order to describe them and see them evolve. The first steps of the apprentice naturalist are always gratifying because the discoveries and connections between species are countless. But the inventory activity quickly becomes a matter for specialists and it may be interesting, particularly through participatory science programmes, to make it accessible to as many people as possible. On the other hand, it is judicious to deploy an activity on a shared place, that of the campuses of Aix-Marseille University. These places devoted to our professional activities are very diverse. To take Marseilles alone, between the Saint Charles campus and the Luminy campus, the environment is radically different. However, even the most urbanized campus can harbor significant biological riches.
The Biodiv'AMU mission, based on existing initiatives, aims to raise awareness of local biodiversity among staff and students. The actions will be based on the development and semi-sanctuary of certain natural areas, on the practice of participatory science around inventories of flora and fauna, campus events, an evolving web page with information and attractive headings (e.g. species of the month) and the list goes on. This mission also intends to influence AMU's development strategy by promoting projects that take into account the maintenance and development of biodiversity.
Observatories, biodiversity inventories:
Inventaire fac is a participatory observatory scheme where the student public carries out an inventory of the fauna and flora of their campus. The objective is to raise awareness among students about the protection and respect of ordinary biodiversity. https://www.inventairefac.com/. This platform is associated with Observation.org: https://observation.org/, a dedicated smartphone application: ObsMapp
INPN, National Inventory of Natural Heritage. It is the reference site of the database of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle to which the largest flow of data from fauna and flora inventories converge. https://inpn.mnhn.fr/accueil/index, dedicated smartphone applications: INPN espèces (beginners), CarNat (more experienced)
SIB, Nature France's Biodiversity Information System, which aims to federate all available and mobilizable data on biodiversity in France, in order to improve their accessibility and reuse: https://naturefrance.fr/systeme-information-biodiversite
Conservatoire d'espaces naturels Provence Alpes côte d'Azur: http://www.cen-paca.org/index.php?rub=0
IUCN is the network of organizations and experts of theInternational Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN France gathers the main associations involved in the protection of nature. Marseille will host the next IUCN Congress in September: https://uicn.fr/
SNPN, Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature, the oldest nature protection association in France, is dedicated to the protection of wild areas and species, based on the scientific foundations of ecology and conservation biology: https: //www.snpn.com/
LPO, Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (League for the Protection of Birds), works on a daily basis for the protection of species, the preservation of spaces and for education and awareness of the environment. It is the leading nature protection association in France in terms of the number of members and employees: https://www.lpo.fr/
ANUMA, the Association of Naturalist Students of Marseille, mainly composed of students of biology and ecology of the campus of Saint Jérôme in Marseille. Its objective is to share and improve naturalist knowledge between students, researchers and all people interested in nature within the naturalist and university community of Marseille: https://anuma.fr/
Academic links research laboratories, UFR AMU:
IMBE, Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Marine and Continental Ecology, dedicated to the study of biodiversity, under the supervision of Aix-Marseille University, Avignon University, the CNRS and the IRD
Institut Pithéas, Observatoire des Sciences de l'Univers, with the BEE master (Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolution): https://www.osupytheas.fr/?-Les-masters-de-l-OSU-Institut-Pytheas-
Biodiversity and pandemic: what links and what solutions? - Gilles Boeuf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AEwaCM7JFk
Covid-19 or the pandemic of an abused biodiversity - Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h0jNJ6dKxo
Pascal Carlier, Lecturer at the Faculty of Sports Sciences of AMU, Doctor in ethology from the Paul Sabatier University of Toulouse
In charge of the Biodiv'AMU mission
Administrator of the National Society for the Protection of Nature