Right outside our front door there are natural habitats badly in need of protection if the thousands of plant and animal species they harbour are not to be threatened by extinction. The great call going out from the Rio summit is one that is as relevant for Europe, Germany, the federal states, their cities and communities as for anywhere else. What role does Heidelberg play in all this, a city recently declared "environmental capital" of Germany? What kinds of organism live here? The "Biodiversity Day" on 3 June 2000 sets out to establish precisely that. The experts running the event cordially invite the citizens of Heidelberg and environs to take part and there are interesting activities galore for them to participate in.
We stand poised on the threshold of the "Century of Biology" and everything does indeed indicate that molecular biology will be changing our lives from the bottom up. At the same time, however, the disappearance of whole species is increasing at a hitherto unexampled pace, and this is an issue which of course is just as much the object of the modern biological research as life at the molecular level. Biologists all over the world have long been alarmed and they make no bones about it.
"The Sixth Obliteration" is the title of a book published a few years back. It relates the present dwindling of biodiversitylargely caused by human agencyin relation to the five great prehistoric periods of mass extinction: the Ordovicium (450 million years ago), the Devonian era (350 million years ago), the end of the Permian period (235 million years back), the end of the Triassic period (190 million years ago) and the cusp between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods (65 million years ago). The eradication of species is at present going on on a major scale, but it largely escapes our attention. Only very few people are familiar with more than 0.01% of the species living on this planet.
In fact there is no complete record for scientific purposes (and hence for posterity) of the species inhabiting the earth at present. In some groups of organisms there are in fact more species unrecorded than recorded. We do not know what significance they have for the preservation of ecosystems, nor do we know how extreme the impoverishment of ecosystems can become before they collapse.
We see the perils but we cannot quantify them. In the face of this situation, the Rio summit of 1992 took far-reaching resolutions for the sustainable conservation of planet earth as a healthy and hospitable environment. One of the commitments of the summit was
to preserve our natural heritage in all its richness. The catchword here is "biodiversity". Our first associations in this connection are naturally the spectacular instances like the tropical rain forests and the coral reefs, two massively threatened habitats for millions of species. But right outside our front door there are also many natural biotopes badly in need of protection if the thousands of plant and animal species living there are not to be decimated. In Central Europe there are approximately 40,000 different species, most of them invertebrates. But who knows what they look like? And who knows anything about their significance?
Scientific traditions disrupted
One of the organisers of Biodiversity Day, Prof. Dr. Volker Storch of Heidelberg University's Institute of Zoology, has this to say: "Research policy in Gernany has been anything but favourable to a systematic approach to biology over the last few decades." The upshot of this is the disruption of scientific traditions. "Important processes affecting us all cannot be described accurately." Examples are the break-down of organic material in the foliage mulch of forests and in agricultural soils. For every square yard of arable soil we can expect 40 million nematodes (round worms) down to a depth of 30 centimetres. In forests and meadows the figure is somewhat lower. "But experts on this group of organisms are few and far between, so the likelihood of any more profound insights is small," says Storch. Protection of biodiversity "is not the hobby-horse of a few biologists and militant conservationists, it's crucial for us all."
It is in this context that "Biodiversity Day" will be taking place on 3 June 2000 in all German-speaking countries. The suggestion was mooted by the magazine GEO. Heidelberg is no exception. Though in global terms nature in Central Europe is not very remarkable for its diversity, the number of different organisms living in and around Heidelberg still runs into thousands.
On 3 June over 100 experts will be doing their level best to record the biodiversity specific to the area, as far as this can be done in one single day. Various institutions will be offering demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with microscopes, binoculars, film material and lots more. Visitors can inspect "Max Honsell", the scientific measuring vessel of the Baden-Württemberg State Centre for Environmental Protection, or the eco-mobile of the Karlsruhe and District Offices for Nature Protection and Landscape Cultivation setting up camp down near the Neckar river; also involved are the Zoological Institute and Museum of the University of Heidelberg, the Geological-Palaeontological Museum, the Botanical Gardens and its hothouses, the Educational College, Heidelberg Zoo and the Federal Biology Centre in Dossenheim.
In addition there are numerous excursions with expert biologists as guides. Participation requires advance booking via the Volkshochschule Heidelberg (Adult Education Centre) at Bergheimer Strasse 76, 69115 Heidelberg, or online via the Internet at www.artenvielfaltstag.de. Final date for signing up is 29 May 2000. For those wishing to put their names down by phone or fax the numbers are 06221/911912, fax: 165133 (on Saturday 27 May 2000 from 9-12 and 1.30 p.m. to 5 p.m. only ). For more information: www.artenvielfaltstag.de
Journalists' inquiries should be addressed to:
Prof. Dr. Volker Storch
Zoologisches Institut der Universität Heidelberg
phone: 06221/545655 or -56, fax: 546162
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317