Habitat Loss, Fragmentation, and Destruction

Roosevelt elk in a cut forest
Cheryl-Samantha Owen/Nature Picture Library/Getty Images

Habitat loss refers to the disappearance of natural environments that are home to particular plants and animals. There are three major types of habitat loss: habitat destruction, habitat degradation, and habitat fragmentation.

Habitat Destruction

Habitat destruction is the process by which natural habitat is damaged or destroyed to such an extent that it no longer is capable of supporting the species and ecological communities that naturally occur there. It often results in the extinction of species and, as a result, the loss of biodiversity.

Habitat can be destroyed directly by many human activities, most of which involve the clearing of land for uses such as agriculture, mining, logging, hydroelectric dams, and urbanization. Although much habitat destruction can be attributed to human activity, it is not an exclusively man-made phenomenon. Habitat loss also occurs as a result of natural events such as floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and climate fluctuations.

For the most part, habitat destruction leads to species extinctions, but it can also open up new habitat that might provide an environment in which new species can evolve, thus demonstrating the resiliency of life on Earth. Sadly, humans are destroying natural habitats at a rate and on spatial scales that exceed what most species and communities can cope with.

Habitat Degradation

Habitat degradation is another consequence of human development. Humans indirectly cause habitat degradation through pollution, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species, all of which reduce the quality of the environment, making it difficult for native plants and animals to thrive.

Habitat degradation is fueled by a fast-growing human population. As the population increases, humans use more land for agriculture and for the development of cities and towns spread out over ever-widening areas. The effects of habitat degradation not only affect native species and communities but human populations as well. Degraded lands are frequently lost to erosion, desertification, and nutrient depletion.

Habitat Fragmentation

Human development also leads to habitat fragmentation, as wild areas are carved up and split into smaller pieces. Fragmentation reduces animal ranges and restricts movement, placing animals in these areas at higher risk of extinction. Breaking up habitat can also separate animal populations, reducing genetic diversity.

Conservationists often seek to protect habitat in order to save individual animal species. For example, Conservation International invests in the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, an initiative of multiple international organizations which provides grants to non-profit and private sector environmental groups to protect fragile habitats around the world. The groups' aim is to protect "biodiversity hotspots" that contain high concentrations of threatened species, such as Madagascar and the Guinean Forests of West Africa. These areas are home to a unique array of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Conservation International believes that saving these "hotspots" is key to protecting the planet's biodiversity.

Habitat destruction is not the only threat facing wildlife, but it is quite likely the greatest. Today, it is taking place at such a rate that species are beginning to disappear in extraordinary numbers. Scientists warn that the planet is experiencing a sixth mass extinction that will have "serious ecological, economic, and social consequences." If the loss of natural habitat around the globe does not slow, more extinctions are sure to follow.

View Article Sources
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