The biological diversity of organisms on Earth is not just something we enjoy when taking a walk through a blossoming meadow in spring; it is also the basis for countless products and services provided by nature, including food, building materials, and medicines as well as the self-purifying qualities of water and protection against erosion. These so-called ecosystem services are what makes Earth inhabitable for humans. They are based on ecological processes, such as photosynthesis, the production of biomass, or nutrient cycles.
Since biodiversity is on the decline, both on a global and a local scale, researchers are asking the question as to what role the diversity of organisms plays in maintaining these ecological processes and thus in providing the ecosystem's vital products and services.
In an international research group led by Prof. Dr. Michel Loreau from Canada, ecologists from ten different universities and research institutes, including Prof. Dr. Michael Scherer-Lorenzen from the University of Freiburg, compiled findings from numerous biodiversity experiments and reanalyzed them. These experiments simulated the loss of plant species and attempted to determine the consequences for the functioning of ecosystems, most of them coming to the conclusion that a higher level of biodiversity is accompanied by an increase in ecosystem processes. However, the findings were always only valid for a certain combination of environmental conditions present at the locations at which the experiments were conducted and for a limited range of ecosystem processes.
In a study published in the current issue of the journal Nature, the research group investigated the extent to which the positive effects of diversity still apply under changing environmental conditions and when a multitude of processes are taken into account. They found that 84 percent of the 147 plant species included in the experiments promoted ecological processes in at least one case.
The more years, locations, ecosystem processes, and scenarios of global change -- such as global warming or land use intensity -- the experiments took into account, the more plant species were necessary to guarantee the functioning of the ecosystems. Moreover, other species were always necessary to keep the ecosystem processes running under the different combinations of influencing factors.
These findings indicate that much more biodiversity is necessary to keep ecosystems functioning in a world that is changing ever faster. The protection of diversity is thus a crucial factor in maintaining Earth's life-support functions.
- Forest Isbell, Vincent Calcagno, Andy Hector, John Connolly, W. Stanley Harpole, Peter B. Reich, Michael Scherer-Lorenzen, Bernhard Schmid, David Tilman, Jasper van Ruijven, Alexandra Weigelt, Brian J. Wilsey, Erika S. Zavaleta, Michel Loreau. High plant diversity is needed to maintain ecosystem services. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10282
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