Scientists are able to estimate the number of stars in the sky better than they are able to estimate the number of species living in the tropical rainforest. Of the world’s estimated 5-10 million plant and animals species, tropical rainforests are home to half.1 Many of these types of species are endemic (unique) to one specific rainforest or to a specific area of one rainforest. Primates are a great example of this, over 95% of are found only in rainforests and nowhere else in the world.1
Each of the world’s rainforests maintains different levels and types of biodiversity. While temperate rainforests are dominated by several types of trees, tropical rainforest species richness is such that there are more than 450 different species of trees in a 2.5 acres (or 1 hectare). Each of these trees provides a habitat that can host hundreds of species. For example, the rainforests in Peru contain more species of birds than the whole of the United States, one small pond in Brazil might be home to a larger variety of fish than all of the rivers in Europe combined, an in one tree in Brazil, there may be as many as 40-50 species of ants!1
There are many benefits to this kind of biodiversity. Currently, rainforest plants act as the basis for our modern day medicines. The National Cancer Institute has been performing research on these plants, and others, in order to find plant-based cures for cancer. Of the 3,000 plants identified as having elements that could potentially cure cancer, 70% are found only in the tropical rainforests. Developing our understanding of the vast number of species in the rainforest and their benefits is crucial to our improving quality of life. Of the estimated 5-10 million species in the tropical rainforest, only 6% have been discovered.1 Of that 6% only a tiny proportion (about one sixth) have been intensively studied.1 The rainforest is a resource with boundless possibilities but it must be protected in order for us to reap its benefits.
Bioiversity of the rainforest is also crucial to the resilience of life of earth. In rare but catastrophic environmental events such as meteor impacts, or sustained volcanism, genetic diversity in the planetary gene pool is necessary for continuing life. The devastation of our rainforests and it’s impact was described by Harvard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist, Edward O. Wilson, nearly 20 years ago. “The one process ongoing in the 1980’s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for.”
1Kalipeni, Ezekiel. “Tropical Forests.” Encyclopedia of Environment and Society.