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Biodiversity Makes Us Stronger and More Resilient

By   /  September 25, 2017  /  3 Comments

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Biodiversity – like having lots of different plants, bugs and wildlife in our pastures, some of which we might not even like – doesn’t always make managing our grazing  easy. But before we wish away all that “difference,” here’s a story from the news desk at the Smithsonian Institute describing the important role biodiversity can play to make our pastures and our operations more resilient.

Hundreds of experiments have shown biodiversity fosters healthier, more productive ecosystems. But many experts doubted whether these experiments would hold up in the real world. A Smithsonian and University of Michigan study published today in the journal Nature offers a decisive answer: Biodiversity’s power in the wild does not match that predicted by experiments—it surpasses it.

Marine ecologist Emmett Duffy of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center works on a boat in Panama’s Bocas Del Toro Research Station. Duffy directs the Smithsonian’s Marine Global Earth Observatory (MarineGEO), an international network of sites that track biodiversity in coastal ecosystems around the world.

“Having diversity is not just an aesthetic thing,” said Emmett Duffy, lead author and marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md. “It’s really important for having ecosystems that work well—that are productive, that can recycle nutrients, absorb wastes and protect shorelines.”

In the past, ecologists primarily tested biodiversity’s impact through carefully controlled experiments: planting one or several species in plots while ensuring everything else remained the same, and observing which plots grew best. To uncover biodiversity’s power outside experiments, biologists synthesized data from 67 observational studies of nature in the field, covering grasslands, forests, freshwater environments and marine environments. The studies spanned all seven continents and contained data from over 600,000 sampling locations around the world.

In every type of ecosystem the team analyzed, biodiversity went hand-in-hand with more flourishing ecosystems. More diverse systems had higher biomass (more total plants and animals), and the effect was stronger in natural studies than has been predicted from controlled experiments. This connection held true even after the team controlled for other environmental factors, like temperature and nutrients. In nature, biodiversity topped climate as the most powerful predictor of biomass production in roughly half the studies, and it topped nutrients in two-thirds of them.

“We now have strong evidence from models, controlled experiments, and studies of natural systems—all of which agree that ecosystems with a greater variety of life are more productive than those with less biological diversity,” said Casey Godwin, a co-author and ecologist at the University of Michigan. “Therefore, if we want to maintain the productivity and functioning of Earth’s ecosystems, conserving their biodiversity is critically important.”

The scientists suspect there are a couple possible explanations for biodiversity’s power in nature. The first is sheer numbers. Natural ecosystems already tend to have vastly more species than most experiments. With so much firepower, it is more likely that some combination of species best suited to an area’s conditions will flourish. But even when the scientists ran the analysis under a hypothetical scenario—imagining what would happen if natural systems had fewer species, like the experiments did—natural systems still had an edge. This second advantage may come from other types of diversity in nature beyond species. Differences in light, moisture or other variables—differences scientists try to screen out meticulously in experiments—exist all over natural communities. These differences could have given diverse communities more opportunities to thrive in the natural world, empowering the entire ecosystem to thrive more as well.

This pasture, where I worked in Boulder County, Colorado, has lots of diversity – or what we sometimes call “weeds.” The cattle thrived on all this biomass.

“Experiments have been incredibly valuable for showing us how and why biodiversity can influence basic ecological processes like the production of biomass, which is important to people because it produces the oxygen we breathe, makes the food we eat and purifies the water we drink,” said co-author Brad Cardinale, an ecologist and University of Michigan professor. “But experiments are probably too small and too short to reveal the full importance of biodiversity in real ecosystems, where plants and animals have evolved and interacted with each other for thousands of years.”

Biodiversity’s surprising power makes the mission to protect it about more than saving species for their own sakes, the scientists said. Preserving life in all its diversity is vital not only for conservationists, but also for the health of businesses and communities.

“The variety of life that we have on Earth is critically important to our future,” Duffy said. “We can’t just expect the world to come back when we destroy something and then take away the stressor….The variety of species are doing different things and interacting in ways that make the ecosystem work.”

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she’s not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

3 Comments

  1. Frank Egan says:

    G’day Gene,down here in Aussie govts have almost given up funding research leaving the door open to commercial interests to “direct” outcomes in their favor.Modern livestock farming is now being driven towards a closed circle ,with the farmer “trapped” in the middle unable to escape because each link in the production chain in linked to the one before and the one after.e.g. modern pasture seeds require chemical fertilizers, chemical sprays to control competition and the best genetics to generate a profit from all those expensive inputs.If you take out just one link the whole system “falls over”.

  2. Curt Gesch says:

    I planted an annual “cocktail” mix plot. It has had three grazings already and I’m hoping for another towards mid-late October. It is still lush. The few other people in this area who tried it have yet to graze it once, or they have had poor success because of planting late. One farmer planted it as an underseed with a barley-pea silage crop but it didn’t do well. I’m not sure that the “cocktail” is meant to be used as a second crop.

  3. Gene Schriefer says:

    Scientific research tends to be reductionist in nature, reducing to one single thing leading to specialization and monocultures? Nature with high diversity tends towards redundancy, backup systems incase another component fails.

    What’s the back up plan to the power grid, the internet, highly inbred species of animals and plants?

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