Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Levin, S. A. , editor-in-chief. 2001 . Academic Press , San Diego . 5 volumes. 4700 pp. $1295.00 . ISBN 0-22226-865-2 .

The term biodiversity was formally introduced into the biological lexicon in 1986 at the first National Forum on Biodiversity. Since then, it has become one of the most widely used terms in the scientific and popular literature—an umbrella term for all efforts to define, measure, and catalog life on Earth. Although the term may be of relatively recent origin, the concept of biodiversity is deeply rooted in the scientific literature. Many of the most prominent naturalists and scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to describe and classify newly discovered species, document their distribution, and characterize their morphology, physiology, and natural history. Interest in the diversity of organisms continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fueling the classification scheme of Linneaus, the garden experiments of Mendel, the expeditions of von Humboldt, Darwin, and Wallace, and the theoretical advances promoted in the “modern synthesis” by evolutionary biologists such as Mayr and Wilson.

However, the motivations and methods for exploring biodiversity have changed over the years. In prior centuries, the primary motivations for studying biodiversity were the search for truth, the joy of discovery, and fascination with undescribed life forms, behaviors, and evolutionary adaptations. Until quite recently, few individuals recognized or acknowledged that life on Earth has been profoundly affected by human influences such as industrialization, deforestation, and the development of modern agriculture. The exponential growth of the human population that began shortly after the industrial revolution marked a turning point in how relationships between organisms and their environment ( ecology ) were viewed: anthropogenic forces now had to be considered prominent among the forces influencing biodiversity. Ecology as a formal discipline matured from its earliest beginnings in the nineteenth century from a primary focus on descriptive studies of “natural” systems to the current focus on hypothesis testing and on comparative and experimental efforts to understand human influences at organismal, population, community, ecosystem, landscape, and global scales.

The profound change in priorities has been matched by a similarly marked change in methodologies. Technical advances in the fields of molecular biology, bioinfomatics, computational science, and electronics, along with theoretical advances in the fields of economics, political science, sociology, and bioethics, have dramatically altered the approaches and specific aims of biodiversity science. Implicit in these new approaches and specific aims is the importance of understanding the role organisms play in our lives. Among the diverse life forms on this planet that benefit humankind are those that possess unique medicinal properties; provide food, fuel, and shelter; stabilize soils; mediate climate; sequester carbon; shelter other organisms; help maintain water quality; promote pollination and seed dispersal; and provide pest-control services. We have come to realize that understanding the causes and consequences of the diversity of life on Earth is essential to the continued existence and health of humanity.

The Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, published as five volumes, is a credit to the contributing authors, the board of editors, the editor-in-chief, and the publisher. It includes 213 full-length articles by specialists in their respective disciplines. Each article provides a comprehensive review of topics originally selected by the chief editor and later refined in collaboration with an international editorial board. The contributions are arranged alphabetically, and the core of the book presents a comprehensive survey of life forms across all major taxonomic groups and ecoregions. Each volume includes a complete table of contents, listed alphabetically by volume. Volume V includes a complete subject index, an alphabetical list of authors, and a glossary of important terms.

The articles are classified into 20 different subject areas, including core components of biodiversity such as evolution, extinction, populations, and ecosystems, but also human influences on biodiversity such as agriculture, economics, and public policy. This encyclopedia provides extensive taxonomic coverage and a comprehensive treatment of ecosystems by biogeographic region. The chapters on different taxonomic groups often address such topics as latitudinal trends in diversity, life zones, and species-area relationships. The core areas of biodiversity are placed in an evolutionary context as background for understanding patterns of speciation, extinction, and loss of ecosystem services from both mechanistic and historical perspectives.

Several chapters consider agriculture, fisheries, and forestry, and their current status; population growth; climate change; and changing land-use patterns—both in historical and contemporary terms. Other chapters focus on threatened and endangered species, the spread of invasive species, the importance of natural systems in mediating climates, the adverse effects of toxic chemicals, and factors that influence human health. Several chapters provide an economic framework and address such topics as valuation, costs, benefits, and a framework for prioritizing action. These chapters emphasize challenges that humankind faces in protecting and preserving biodiversity, as well as mechanisms, incentives, and financial institutions needed to maintain global stability.

The Encyclopedia of Biodiversity is an impressive resource, especially in its breadth and depth of coverage. It provides one of the most comprehensive treatments of biodiversity that can be found anywhere. This encyclopedia represents a tremendous resource that will be of interest to researchers, educators, students, and the general public. It promises to stand as a landmark contribution for years to come.