The grass is always greener

Aug 19, 2011
(Photo: Creative Commons Wikipedia)

(PhysOrg.com) -- Recent study of grasslands shows that species variety more important to ecosystem services than previously thought.

As biodiversity declines worldwide, there is concern that this will lead to declines in the services that ecosystems provide for people, such as food production, , and . But until now it has been unclear, whether just a few or in fact a large number of the in an ecosystem are needed to provide .

By combining data from 17 of the largest and longest-running biodiversity experiments, scientists from universities across and Europe have found that previous studies have underestimated the importance of biodiversity for maintaining multiple ecosystem services across many years and places.

“Most previous studies considered only the number of species needed to provide one service under one set of environmental conditions,” says Prof. Michel Loreau from McGill University’s biology department who supervised the study. “These studies found that many species appeared redundant. That is, it appeared that the extinction of many species would not affect the functioning of the ecosystem because other species could compensate for their loss.”

Now, by looking at grassland plant species, investigators have found that most of the studied species were important at least once for the maintenance of ecosystem services, because different sets of species were important during different years, at different places, for different services, and under different global change (e.g., climate or land-use change) scenarios. Furthermore, the species needed to provide one service during multiple years were not the same as those needed to provide multiple services during one year. “This means that biodiversity is even more important for maintaining ecosystem services than was previously thought,” says Dr. Forest Isbell, the lead author and investigator of this study. “Our results indicate that many species are needed to maintain ecosystem services at multiple times and places in a changing world, and that species are less redundant than was previously thought.”

The scientists involved in the study also offer recommendations for using these results to prioritize conservation efforts and predict consequences of species extinctions. “It is nice to know which groups of species promoted ecosystem functioning under hundreds of sets of environmental conditions,” says Isbell, “because this will allow us to determine whether some species often provide ecosystem services under that are currently common, or under conditions that will become increasingly common in the future.” But Michel Loreau, of McGill, adds au cautionary note: “We should be careful when making predictions. The uncertainty over future environmental changes means that conserving as much biodiversity as possible could be a good precautionary approach.”

The research was funded by a Discovery grant of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada and by the Canada Research Chair program.

Explore further: Stanford researchers rethink 'natural' habitat for wildlife

More information: To read the study in Nature: www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature10282.html

Related Stories

Land conversion and climate threaten land birds

Jun 05, 2007

Land conversion and climate change have already had significant impacts on biodiversity and associated ecosystem services.Using future land-cover projections from the recently completed Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Walter ...

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Apr 18, 2014

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Poll: Big Bang a big question for most Americans

Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.