Why does biodiversity equal life?


Last Sunday, on the 22nd of May, we celebrated the 21st UN biodiversity day.  As I am not a biologist, it has taken me awhile to wrap my head around the concept of biodiversity. The lay understanding, from which I started, equals biodiversity with species, making me think of dinosaurs or woolly mammoths, or the efforts of saving rhinos from extinction. However, I’ve learned that biodiversity encompasses also diversity within species and the diversity of ecosystems, each giving and maintaining a miniature world of their own. 

Last week though, something clicked and I understood something about biodiversity I had not realized before. This insight, like so many others in my life, is due to horses. 

Born superathletes

Ultimately, horses are half-a-ton of muscles and senses geared towards flight at supersonic speeds. Calm, peaceful, highly social and friendly animals, as prey, everything in them has evolved to enable surviving the sneaky predators. 

This applies also to birthing. In the world of prey, it’s less than advisable for the mom or the newborn to remain sedentary for too long. So, first of all, the mares carry the babies until they are quite ready: pregnancies last for 11-12 months. Secondly, the birthing itself is rapid, although the mare can halt it in the contraction phase if the environment isn’t safe enough. When the mare starts pushing, the foal is out in 5-30 minutes. Thirdly, the foals are wunderkinds. They stand up within one hour, eat standing up from a standing mare in two hours, poop in three, and can trot and gallop away at the ripe old age of four (4!) hours. 

At least, that’s the natures’ perfect plan. 


Last week I had just been hanging out with my own horses, as one of the mares at the stable started showing signs of birthing. Normally horses give birth during night (there’s safety in darkness), so it wasn’t quite expected and I went to offer my help to the owner. 

The mare was a first-timer and quite baffled and unhappy, and while nature had kicked in, something was clearly not as it should. Push as she might, nothing happened. We had to try to pull the foal out to save it – as the birthing is designed to be rapid, the foals cannot live long after the birthing has started. 

We got the first leg out, and then another. But that was as far as the foal would move even though at this point there were six of us taking turns in trying to help the baby out. The owner called the vet, who started coming. 

At some point, we accepted that the foal is dead, and that now it is only about trying to save the mare. She gave the pushes all she got, and lay moaning on the floor, with her eyes continuously dimming more and more. It became a race against the clock as we waited, and waited, and waited for the vet, and wished and willed the mare to stay with us until help would come. 

Three hours later

It had been more than three hours since the birthing started when the vet finally came. There was a brief discussion of three choices: give up on the mare and relieve it finally from its misery with the dead foal left where it was, try getting the foal out in one piece and try to save the mom, or cut the foal out and try to save the mom. The owner and the vet decided to trying to do all they can to get the foal out in one piece to give the mare the best fighting chance. 

Turned out that the foal was in a position where the head kept obstructing, and that it would need to be first pushed back in, then turned, and then pulled out. This was done, and finally the vet got such a hold on the foal that she could pull the dead foal out. 

It blinked. Then it kicked. THE FOAL WAS ALIVE!!! 

One minute old miracle filly!


No-one of us had ever heard of a foal surviving a three+ hour birthing. We took half a moment to realize what lay in front of us, and then leaped into action to help the foal and the mare. It came as no surprise to us that the filly (it was a girl!) turned out to be quite a fighter. The filly started immediately trying to get up, and within the hour succeeded. 

Kind of. Turned out that as we had tried to pull her out, we had unwittingly dislocated something in one of her legs. Still, as the fighter she was, she fought to remain standing on three legs, and soon was hopping and stumbling around trying to find a nipple to suck. And failing: we had to milk the mom and bottle feed the baby.

So, we had a living filly and a living mare. However, they were not safe yet. As the filly couldn’t stand well enough to suck from the tit of the standing mare, the hormone-eliciting effect of tit-sucking didn’t happen in the mare. Therefore, the placenta was not expelled, which led to complications with the mare. 

The complications with the mare led to problems with the filly that ended up being fed intravenously resulting in problems with the metabolism. But after having stayed awake for three nights, the owner of the pair finally told me that both will live. 

The first official photo after learning that they will live! Image: Kylämäen hevostila

What has any of this to do with BIODIFUL?

The whole birthing process of horses is a remarkable example of the perfectness with which nature has fitted together the species-specific evolution and the environmental elements. And more remarkably, nature has repeated its perfect feat in creating a plethora of these perfect survival processes for the vast array of living beings on our planet. 

Jenga tower.
By Guma89 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

But life is more than the survival of one species. Each perfectly designed living being also has a role in the larger process of life constituting the environment in which it lives. In turn, each specific environmental whole, ecosystem, has a role in maintaining the livability of the whole planet. Life is an enormous system of systems and processes, with each living being necessary for upholding the whole. Imagine a Jenga tower consisting of Jenga towers that in turn consist of Jenga towers consisting of Jenga towers…

I spent my Biodiversity day with horses, marveling the recovery of both the mare and the filly. I also marveled how short a distance it is between life and death. As it turns out, both the mare and the filly were perfectly normal at the start of the birthing process, but somehow the filly had managed to move its head into wrong position, which led to a very near death to both mom and daughter. Such a tiny thing, an ill-timed, slight movement of a perfectly healthy head, and the perfectly designed birthing process toppled like a Jenga tower. 

This time it was human intervention into natural processes that saved two lives. 

This time it was human intervention into natural processes that saved two lives. 

The fuss about biodiversity

However, not all human interventions save life. Instead, we keep playing Jenga with a multitude of lives, species and ecosystems. The Jenga tower of life is so huge and complex that while we might note the disappearance of one of the lower level supports, we don’t fully grasp the whole game. 

The small movement between life and death of two horses was a microscopic event in the planetary scale. Their loss would have resulted in human grief, little more. Losing all horses, the whole species, might be a hiccup of a planetary scale (and an immense sorrow to all us horse lovers), but the planetary Jenga would not budge; the horse sized gap in life would be supported by systems beside, under and above the gap. 

But like all Jenga players know, at some point there are simply too few supporting blocks left and the whole tower collapses. The fuss about biodiversity is about the fact that nobody actually knows where we are at the planetary game of Jenga: how many gaps can we still create to build a higher tower? The base of our life tower is now so eroded that every loss of genetic diversity, species or ecosystem from now on could be the last block we can remove from the tower. 

Like I was reminded last week, life is both the most fragile and the toughest of things. We humans are, to my knowledge, the only species that can save the lives of the members of other species through intentional and deliberate action. While not the only ones capable of killing, the scope of our destructivity is equally unique as our ability to heal. 

We humans are, to my knowledge, the only species that can save the lives of the members of other species through intentional and deliberate action.

Nature has created remarkable, resilient processes that constitute the miraculous system of life. In its toughness it does its best to patch over the gaps we keep poking into it. In its fragility we are now at the point where we don’t know which action of ours is like the slight movement of the foal’s head that brings the whole system tumbling down. It is now time for us to forgo the wanton destruction and embrace the healing qualities of our humanity.

This is what we mean by our slogan, biodiversity equals life. Fundamentally, biodiversity is not about species or ecosystems – it’s about life. 

This is what we mean by our slogan, biodiversity equals life. Fundamentally, biodiversity is not about species or ecosystems – it’s about life. 

Mother and one week old miracle filly.

Milla Unkila

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