, Volume 122, Issue 3, pp 297-305

Linking biodiversity to ecosystem function: implications for conservation ecology

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Abstract 

We evaluate the empirical and theoretical support for the hypothesis that a large proportion of native species richness is required to maximize ecosystem stability and sustain function. This assessment is important for conservation strategies because sustenance of ecosystem functions has been used as an argument for the conservation of species. If ecosystem functions are sustained at relatively low species richness, then arguing for the conservation of ecosystem function, no matter how important in its own right, does not strongly argue for the conservation of species. Additionally, for this to be a strong conservation argument the link between species diversity and ecosystem functions of value to the human community must be clear. We review the empirical literature to quantify the support for two hypotheses: (1) species richness is positively correlated with ecosystem function, and (2) ecosystem functions do not saturate at low species richness relative to the observed or experimental diversity. Few empirical studies demonstrate improved function at high levels of species richness. Second, we analyze recent theoretical models in order to estimate the level of species richness required to maintain ecosystem function. Again we find that, within a single trophic level, most mathematical models predict saturation of ecosystem function at a low proportion of local species richness. We also analyze a theoretical model linking species number to ecosystem stability. This model predicts that species richness beyond the first few species does not typically increase ecosystem stability. One reason that high species richness may not contribute significantly to function or stability is that most communities are characterized by strong dominance such that a few species provide the vast majority of the community biomass. Rapid turnover of species may rescue the concept that diversity leads to maximum function and stability. The role of turnover in ecosystem function and stability has not been investigated. Despite the recent rush to embrace the linkage between biodiversity and ecosystem function, we find little support for the hypothesis that there is a strong dependence of ecosystem function on the full complement of diversity within sites. Given this observation, the conservation community should take a cautious view of endorsing this linkage as a model to promote conservation goals.

Received: 2 September 1999 / Accepted: 26 October 1999