What is biodiversity?

The diversity of life on Earth is called biological diversity, or in short biodiversity.

Many definitions of biodiversity have been put forward; however, the one that is widely recognised is that considered in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Biodiversity is here defined as “the variability among living organisms from all sources, including inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part of; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

Genetic diversityThe heritable variation of genetic characteristics observed within and among species and their populations – the basic component is the gene (the functional unit of heredity), which is made up of DNA.
Species diversityThe number and variety of species in a given area.
Ecological diversityThe diversity of ecosystems, made up of complex communities (groupings of interacting species), their non-living component, and including processes and interactions occurring within and between such systems.

Biodiversity should be considered at all levels since pressure at one level will affect the other levels of biological organisation.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity is a finite resource that has economic, cultural, scientific, educational and intrinsic values. Besides this, biodiversity is necessary for human well-being in terms of ecosystem services that stem from the complex interaction between living organisms and habitats. Such services contribute to the quality of life through the provision of goods such as food, water and fuel, as well as other forms of raw material that are used in the manufacture of clothes and production of medicines, among  others.

Bee pollination - Essential ecosystem service
Bees provide an essential ecosystem service through pollination

Biodiversity is naturally dynamic, that is, it is in a constant state of change. Regrettably, over the past decade, biodiversity has also been, and is still, experiencing drastic unprecedented change at the hands of humans and associated drivers of biodiversity change, bringing about the loss if biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems. This issue is widely recognised, and the urgent need for action to conserve biodiversity and to use its components in a sustainable manner, is crucial in view of the important role of biodiversity.

In Malta, various measures have been implemented throughout the years with the aim to prevent and mitigate negative impacts on biodiversity. For instance, major progress has been made in enacting a comprehensive legal framework and in establishing an ecological network of protected areas, with the aim of safeguarding biodiversity.

Local biodiversity

Despite their small land area, the Maltese Islands harbour a diverse array of flora and fauna, especially when considering the limited number of habitat types, and the ever-increasing human pressure that they face. The local biodiversity consists of over 2,500 species of plants and over 5,000 species of fauna, summing up to over 7,500 indigenous species. Even so, we know that this list is not exhaustive, and more efforts are being made in this regard to establish an even more realistic figure. In addition, Malta’s biodiversity shares affinities with other areas of the Mediterranean, not only in view of its central position, but also in view of historical land bridges.

Għar Ħasan cliffs
Għar Ħasan cliffs

The Maltese coastline spans about 270km with a south-southwest inclination, due to the Islands’ geomorphology. The coastline is also characterised by a series of bays, harbours and inlets, hence depicting the landscape diversity of the Islands.

Cliffs span along the entire south-to-west side of Malta, Gozo and Comino, and on the northeast side of mainland Malta. The rugged and relatively inaccessible cliffs and screes display great variety of form and profile. Being exposed to dry and harsh conditions, the vegetation and animal communities of this habitat are highly adapted to live in extreme conditions.

Maltese cliff-orache
Maltese cliff-orache

Such unique communities harbour a good number of endemic species that are only restricted to such habitats; amongst these, one can mention the following:

English Name Maltese Name Scientific Name Comments
Maltese cliff-orache il-bjanka tal-irdum Atriplex lanfrancoi Flowering plant; named after a local botanist.
Maltese door-snail id-dussies Lampedusa melitensis Terrestrial mollusc; one of the rarest animals in Malta.
Maltese rock-centaury widnet il-baħar Cheirolophus crassifolius Flowering plant; Malta’s national plant.
Maltese door-snail varieties
Maltese door-snail varieties
Maltese rock-centaury
Maltese rock-centaury

Cliffs and screes are also of value since they provide shelter and a breeding habitat for a variety of bird species, amongst which:

English Name Maltese Name Scientific Name Comments
Blue rock-thrush il-merill Monticola solitarius Member of the thrush family; Malta’s national bird.
Mediterranean storm-petrel il-kanġu ta’ Filfla Hydrobates pelagicus melitensis Seabird; Filfla alone holds 50% of the Mediterranean’s entire population.
Scopoli’s shearwater iċ-ciefa Calonectris diomedea Seabird; forms large rafts on the water surface.
Yelkouan shearwater il-qarnija Puffinus yelkouan Seabird; Malta alone holds 10% of the global population.
Blue rock-thrush (male)
Blue rock-thrush (male)
Mediterranean storm-petrel
Mediterranean storm-petrel

Semi-natural terrestrial habitats in the Maltese Islands appear in different stages of the same ecological succession, including steppic, garrigue, phrygana, pre-desert scrub, maquis and woodland communities.

Yelkouan shearwater
Yelkouan shearwater
Scopoli's shearwater
Scopoli's shearwater

When one considers the marine environment, Posidonia seagrass meadows probably represent the most important, natural, marine habitat type in Maltese waters, in terms of productivity. These meadows are a priority habitat of importance at European level, as they provide food and shelter for numerous invertebrates, fish and other marine vertebrate species.

Posidonia oceanica meadows
Posidonia oceanica meadows

Clearing-House Mechanism

The development of a Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM) is called for through the CBD. The aim is to develop a mechanism that promotes and facilitates technical and scientific cooperation, and information and information exchange, in the field of biodiversity. This website serves as Malta’s CHM.

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