Biodiversity: exploring the variety of life.

Biodiversity is an exhibition at the Museum of Natural History that explores biodiversity through the celebrated art of Kurt Jackson and reflections from reserchers at Oxford University.

What is biodiversity?

The word Biodiversity describes the variety of life. In any one place, the range of living things, including plants, animals, and bacteria, is called its biodiversity. It is used as a measure of how well or poorly natural life is coping with stresses like loss of habitat, pollution or climate change. The higher the number of different species, the greater the biodiversity. Biodiverse habitats are healthier because they can cope with change. When there are many different plants and animals, a change is unlikely to affect them all so many will survive.

Daddy Long Legs by Kurt Jackson

Because human activity has an impact on biodiversity we have a responsibility to look after the health of ecosystems. Each habitat has its own distinctive biodiversity, from the fields and forests, seas and streams, to the increasingly buit up places where we humans tend to live. Under the water, on a mountain, in your garden; what lives there?

What’s in the exhibition?

This exhibition shows artworks made by artist and environmentalist Kurt Jackson. The art was made in a number of different locations across the UK. Alongside it, there are displays of specimens from the Museum’s collection. These highlight the range of species found in landscapes across the UK. The artwork and museum specimens have been combined with responses from biodiversity researchers at the University of Oxford. How can we understand it? How can we protect it? What does it mean to us all?

British insects on display in the Biodiversity exhibition.

“Daily, during my time spent making art outdoors, I notice the life around me – the plants and animals that share these places with me.”

Kurt Jackson

Insects and biodiversity

Scientists measure biodiversity by looking at the abundance and distribution of species.

  • Abundance describes how numerous species are. Because they are interested in changes over time, scientists often measure relative abundance: how numerous species are compared to a point of time in the past.
  • Distribution describes how wide the area is over which species are found. Relative distribution compares this to a point in the past.

Both these measures are important. For example, having large numbers of many different species (high abundance) is good, but if they are restricted to a small area (low distribution) then they are vulnerable.

Change in relative abundance of 76 moth species. Defra 2019.

Rather than trying to measure the numbers of all the plants and animals in a habitat, scientists often monitor indicator species. These are particular plants and animals that tell us about the health of whole ecosystems. Insects can be indicator species. For example,in the UK, the Department for Environment, food and Rural Affairs (Defra) monitors 76 species of moth (as well as many other plant and animal species).

Visiting the exhibition

You can visit the Biodiversity exhibition in the Main Court of the Museum until 15 May. Entrance is free and there is no need to book

Selection of insects from the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

If you would like to investigate biodiversity where you live, take a look at some of our suggestions and resources for Finding and Identifying Insects.

We’d love to hear about what you find!

insects: the meat of the future?

Did you know that around 2 billion people around the world choose to eat insects as part of their regular diet? The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy (say en-toe-moe-fay-gee) and is most common in tropical areas where larger species can be found all year round.  Around 1900 different species are regularly eaten, including beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers and crickets. These insects are an important part of people’s diets as they are rich in protein and vital minerals and vitamins. 

Across the world, 90% of people are meat-eaters. Of course, most of the meat eaten comes not from insects but from larger animals such as cows and sheep. With the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, the huge demand for animal protein is growing all the time.  We are using more and more land to farm animals for food, contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss (the variety of different living things found in the environment).

Herd of cattle graze in a pasture near a village/Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Deforestation / Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You may think that eating insects sounds disgusting. Many of us don’t like the idea of munching on a mantis or crunching a cricket but, with rising demand for meat protein, could insects provide a solution for this global problem? 

Insects to the rescue?

At the moment, most insects that are eaten come from the wild but there are lots of good reasons to consider farming insects. 

The demand for meat and dairy products has resulted in more and more land being used for farming, leading to the destruction of many habitats. This is having a devastating effect on our planet’s biodiversity as many plant and animal species have nowhere to thrive and many are now under threat. Farming insects, however, needs much less land and water.  For example, 400 square metres of land are needed to produce just 1 kilogram of beef, but 1 kilogram of crickets can be produced from just 30 square metres. 

Another problem with cattle farming is the production of greenhouse gases. Cows and other large animals produce huge quantities of methane; a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  At the moment, livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the cars, planes and other forms of transport in the world. In contrast, most insects don’t produce methane gas as a waste product. 

Of course, it’s not as simple as just switching from farming cows to farming crickets.  What about the millions of farmers around the world who rely on rearing cattle for their living?  What would happen to all the land that is currently being used to farm livestock?  Is it ethical to kill insects for food?  Read on for some suggestions about where to find out more about these issues and debates.

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about sustainability of meat production and consumption, including the idea of eating insects, why not:

  • Visit Meat the Future. This exhibition, opening on 28th May 2021 here at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, looks at the health, environmental, social and economic impacts of meat and dairy production and consumption, and explores the future of food by examining the findings of the Livestock, Environment and People Project (LEAP).
  • Take a look at these videos and articles which talk more about the issue of sustainability in farming and discuss the pros and cons of eating and farming insects:

Should we eat bugs?  

Arguments against eating insects

What do you think?

We would love to hear what you think on this issue. Do you think farming insects is a good idea? Would you eat a beetle burger? Do you think there are other ways to cut global consumption of meat and dairy products? Let us know you thoughts below or by using the Contact Us page.