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What Is Conservation Biology? - Definition & Principles

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  • 0:05 Ecology and Keystone Species
  • 1:49 Conservation Biology
  • 3:08 Conservation In-situ
  • 5:16 Conservation Ex-situ
  • 6:07 Sustainability
  • 6:43 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Enzor

Laura has a Master's degree in Biology and is working on her PhD in Biology. She specializes in teaching Human Physiology at USC.

Conservation biology aims to reduce the human impact on the environment by looking for the causes and possible solutions to these problems. In this lesson, you'll learn about conservation biology and the different types of conservation.

Ecology and Keystone Species

Ecology is the study of how organisms interact with their environment on a variety of levels. It is a diverse field that encompasses many different aspects of the environment and environmental relationships. Ecologists study environmental interactions at several different levels, including organisms (individuals), populations (groups of organisms), communities (groups of populations) and ecosystems (all the living and non-living things in an environment).

Ecosystems are typically delicately balanced; changing one small thing will drastically change the ecosystem as a whole. Many ecosystems are centered around a keystone species, or an organism that maintains the structural integrity of an environment. In other words, if the keystone species did not exist in the ecosystem, the ecosystem would be drastically different or cease to exist.

Let's take a look at a common kelp forest keystone species, the sea otter. Kelp are anchored to the bottom of the ocean with large, root like masses called holdfasts. Unlike traditional plants, the roots of kelp are above ground; they anchor the kelp to rocks and other large structures.

Sea urchins eat the holdfasts and blades of the kelp. Sea otters prey upon sea urchins and keep the population numbers at a reasonable level. If sea otters did not exist, urchins would overpopulate the kelp forests, and there would not be much kelp left. This would prove detrimental to other species, such as fish and sharks, which rely on the kelp forest for food and as a place to hide.

Conservation Biology

While ecology is a broad field, the science of ecology often provides insight into environmental problems such as the disappearance of keystone species. One field of ecology that looks at environmental problems caused by human actions is conservation biology. This is a goal-oriented science that focuses on reversing and understanding the causes of the loss of biodiversity, or the different types of organisms within an ecosystem.

Unfortunately, humans are directly responsible for the decline in population numbers of thousands of species. This is mainly due to the fact that we degrade or destroy their natural habitat to clear land for buildings, roads and agriculture.

Conservation biologists usually work towards protecting a focal species, or a specific species, which, if conserved, will help the ecosystem as a whole. A focal species is typically endangered, which means in danger of going extinct (or ceasing to exist) in the near future, or threatened, which means likely to become endangered in the near future. Protection of a focal species includes learning about the behavior of the focal species, its habitat and resource requirements, what roles it fills in the ecosystem and how it is threatened by human activity.

Conservation In-Situ

In-situ, or on-site, conservation is the conservation of a species in its natural habitat. This is beneficial because it means the species in need of protection can maintain its day-to-day life without being disturbed. For this to occur, a conservation plan, or plan for how the species will be protected from future harm, and how biologists plan on bringing population numbers back if they are low, must be created. To create a conservation plan, biologists must first decide what will be most helpful for protecting the target species.

Preserving ecosystems is often a top priority because one of the most harmful effects of human development is habitat loss and fragmentation, or breaking up a natural habitat into smaller chunks (this typically occurs when humans build a road or highway). When a habitat becomes fragmented, it is no longer a continuous area, and this splitting of populations and resources can lead to species extinction.

One way conservation biologists can preserve ecosystems is by establishing protected areas. Parks, wilderness areas and other legally protected preservation areas are all examples of this. These areas are chosen because they provide essential habitat to a number of threatened or sensitive species. This effort focuses on protecting a large number of species in a very limited area. For example, protecting sand dunes allows dune-building grasses, such as sea oat, to thrive and create new dunes. This, in turn, provides habitat for nesting organisms such as sea turtles.

Restoring degraded habitats is another top priority for conservation biologists. Of course, restoring a habitat is often more difficult than protecting an existing habitat. Restoration involves replanting native vegetation, fencing out non-native animals and removing toxins in the water and ground. However, when done properly, restoration can create a new habitat for wildlife and other organisms.

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