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Bio­di­ver­sity pro­motes mul­ti­task­ing in ecosystems

pub­lished 02 May 2015 | mod­i­fied 02 May 2015

A new study of the com­plex inter­play between organ­isms and their envi­ron­ment shows that bio­di­ver­sity — the vari­ety of organ­isms liv­ing on Earth — is even more impor­tant to the healthy func­tion­ing of ecosys­tems than pre­vi­ously thought.

ecological function bryozoans and amphipodsThe find­ings bol­ster the view that con­ser­va­tion of bio­di­ver­sity ben­e­fits the plants and ani­mals directly involved, and by exten­sion the human pop­u­la­tions that rely on these organ­isms and ecosys­tems for food, water, and other basic services.

Lead author on the study, pub­lished on 24 April in the jour­nal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, is Jonathan Lefcheck, a post-​doctoral research asso­ciate and recent Ph.D. grad­u­ate at the Col­lege of William & Mary’s Vir­ginia Insti­tute of Marine Sci­ence (VIMS).

Many recent stud­ies sup­port the idea that greater bio­di­ver­sity helps main­tain more sta­ble and pro­duc­tive ecosys­tems,” says Lefcheck, “but this con­clu­sion rests mostly on exper­i­ments that tested how los­ing species affects only a sin­gle ecosys­tem process, such as plant growth. “Our study,” he says, “is the first sys­tem­atic look at how bio­di­ver­sity affects the suite of inter­con­nected processes that keep ecosys­tems healthy and functioning.”

The team exam­ined the rela­tion­ship between bio­di­ver­sity and these var­i­ous processes, termed “mul­ti­func­tion­al­ity,” by com­pil­ing and analysing the results from 94 exper­i­ments con­ducted around the world. Each exper­i­ment involved manip­u­la­tion of at least 3 dif­fer­ent species and the mon­i­tor­ing of at least 2 and up to 12 dis­tinct ecosys­tem func­tions — from the accu­mu­la­tion of soil nitro­gen to the con­trol of aquatic algae. The exper­i­ments were evenly divided between ter­res­trial and aquatic habitats.

The results of the team’s syn­the­sis were clear. “We found that bio­di­ver­sity gen­er­ally enhances mul­ti­ple func­tions in exper­i­men­tal ecosys­tems,” says Lefcheck. “In other words, as you con­sider more aspects of an ecosys­tem, bio­di­ver­sity becomes more impor­tant: one species can­not do it all.”

Our review […] sug­gests that, con­trary to some prior inter­pre­ta­tions, we may have actu­ally under­es­ti­mated the impor­tance of bio­di­ver­sity to the func­tion­ing of ecosys­tems in nature.
Dr. Emmett Duffy, co-​author and project’s co-​leader, direc­tor of the Smithsonian’s Ten­nen­baum Marine Obser­va­tory Network »

To illus­trate the team’s find­ings, Lefcheck turns to the focus of his own field research — the sea­grass mead­ows of Chesa­peake Bay and the coastal ocean.

Sea­grasses,” says Lefcheck, “are home to a vari­ety of small ani­mals that per­form dif­fer­ent jobs. Some con­trol algae that would smother sea­grasses. Oth­ers keep out inva­sive species. Still oth­ers pro­vide food for striped bass and blue crabs that are served on our din­ner tables. By con­serv­ing this vari­ety of ani­mals we can we max­i­mize the health of the grass bed, and the ben­e­fits to people.”

Pro­fes­sor Nico Eisen­hauer, a co-​author from the Ger­man Cen­tre of Inte­gra­tive Bio­di­ver­sity Research, adds, “Only with this level of inter­na­tional, cross-​system col­lab­o­ra­tion can we explore global pat­terns and under­stand the impor­tance of bio­di­ver­sity loss for all of humanity.”

Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan pro­fes­sor Bradley Car­di­nale, co-​author and project co-​leader, says, “Peo­ple ben­e­fit from nature in many ways. Some extract goods like tim­ber. Oth­ers recre­ate, hunt, or fish. Still oth­ers use the clean water. Our study sug­gests that species con­ser­va­tion helps sus­tain the vari­ety of eco­log­i­cal processes that con­trol the ben­e­fits peo­ple get from nature.”

interactive map biodiversity-ecosystem functioning studiesAn inter­ac­tive map of the ter­res­trial (green) and aquatic (blue) stud­ies included in the analy­sis. The larger the cir­cle, the greater the num­ber of eco­log­i­cal func­tions mea­sured. Click the map and cir­cles for details on each site.

(Source: VIMS news release, 24.04.2015)

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