Scientists demonstrate importance of niche differences in biodiversity

August 12, 2009
Jonathan Levine conducting his biodiversity research. Credit: George Foulsham, Office of Public Affairs, UCSB

Scientists at UC Santa Barbara have found strong evidence that niche differences are critical to biodiversity. Their findings are published online in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

"Ecologists have long assumed that species differences in how they use the environment are key to explaining the large number of species we see all around us, but the importance of such niches have never been field tested," said first author Jonathan M. Levine, associate professor in UCSB's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.

Levine and his co-author Janneke HilleRisLambers, a former postdoctoral fellow at UCSB, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Washington, did field testing of small plants. These plants were found in northern Santa Barbara County on rocky outcrops, where diversity is very high. They used a combination of mathematical techniques, as well as experimental approaches, to remove niche differences from these experimental communities.

"Our work is important because it resolves a century-old biodiversity puzzle," said Levine. "Why doesn't the single best competitor exclude all others in the community?"

Ecological theory has posed two possible answers to the coexistence conundrum. "The classic argument is that niche differences allow species to divide up the environment, much like different products cater to consumers of different tastes or incomes," he said. "The alternative is that competitors are so evenly matched that no single species can win -- as occurs when different airlines offer the same route for the same price."

Conflict between these hypotheses has formed the single greatest controversy in ecology over the last decade. The new study provides the first strong evidence that species' differences are responsible for their coexistence.

Although the study's primary importance is in advancing pure ecological science, understanding how biodiversity works is critical. It is in those communities in which niche differences maintain diversity that loss has the greatest impact on plant production, and other ecosystem services to mankind -- from economic to aesthetic.

Source: University of California - Santa Barbara (news : web)

Explore further: Current mass extinction spurs major study of which plants to save

Related Stories

New study reveals hidden neotropical diversity

May 15, 2008

Evidence of physically similar species hidden within plant tissues suggest that diversity of neotropical herbivorous insects may not simply be a function of plant architecture, but may also reflect the great age and area ...

Too much water, fertilizer bad for plant diversity

March 26, 2007

Too much of multiple good things -- water or nutrients, for example -- may decrease the diversity of plant life in an ecosystem while increasing the productivity of a few species, a UC Irvine scientist has discovered.

Recommended for you

New discovery challenges long-held evolutionary theory

October 19, 2017

Monash scientists involved in one of the world's longest evolution experiments have debunked an established theory with a study that provides a 'high-resolution' view of the molecular details of adaptation.

Water striders illustrate evolutionary processes

October 19, 2017

How do new species arise and diversify in nature? Natural selection offers an explanation, but the genetic and environmental conditions behind this mechanism are still poorly understood. A team led by Abderrahman Khila at ...

Gene editing in the brain gets a major upgrade

October 19, 2017

Genome editing technologies have revolutionized biomedical science, providing a fast and easy way to modify genes. However, the technique allowing scientists to carryout the most precise edits, doesn't work in cells that ...

Gut bacteria from wild mice boost health in lab mice

October 19, 2017

Laboratory mice that are given the gut bacteria of wild mice can survive a deadly flu virus infection and fight colorectal cancer dramatically better than laboratory mice with their own gut bacteria, researchers report October ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.