Biodiversity, the diversity of living things, can range from genetic diversity through to ecosystem diversity, though we most commonly associate it with the concept of species richness. At its root, diversity means variety, and the more varied the genes, species, or ecosystems are, the greater the biodiversity at that scale. Within geographical space there are biodiversity hotspots, so defined based on their two-fold uniqueness: level of plant endemism and level of external threat.
Imagine my surprise when it was suggested to me that saving cows would improve biodiversity. I started to contemplate whether or not domesticated species were the absolute opposite of biodiversity, and I even asked this person, “Are cows biodiverse?” In considering our canine and feline companions, it would probably shock you to know that cat genes are varied enough to be useful in genetics instruction at Berkley. Dog breeds vary in appearance enough (e.g., Pomeranian vs. Great Dane) that it is difficult to ponder their common ancestor as being similar to the comparatively boring-looking grey wolf. I am most familiar with Highland, Shorthorn, Black and Red Angus beef cattle, but I was surprised to learn that cattle appearance varies greatly also. There must be a wide gene pool behind all of those different ways that cows can look, and don’t even get me started on their personalities.
However, in selecting for certain traits deemed desirable by humans, we simultaneously select against myriad other traits. For example, how often do you see anything remotely resembling heirloom tomatoes for sale in your local grocery store? In fact, organizations like The Livestock Conservancy exist because we run the risk of losing heirloom breeds and their associated novel genes. We narrow the gene pool of domesticated species each time we vote with our wallet consistently for only one variety of tomato over and above any other. My feelings on domestication and biodiversity thus remain conflicted.
Note: On domestication and biodiversity was first posted to Medium on December 7, 2015.