A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change

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Evidence is mounting that extinctions are altering key processes important to the productivity and sustainability of Earth’s ecosystems1, 2, 3, 4. Further species loss will accelerate change in ecosystem processes5, 6, 7, 8, but it is unclear how these effects compare to the direct effects of other forms of environmental change that are both driving diversity loss and altering ecosystem function. Here we use a suite of meta-analyses of published data to show that the effects of species loss on productivity and decomposition—two processes important in all ecosystems—are of comparable magnitude to the effects of many other global environmental changes. In experiments, intermediate levels of species loss (21–40%) reduced plant production by 5–10%, comparable to previously documented effects of ultraviolet radiation and climate warming. Higher levels of extinction (41–60%) had effects rivalling those of ozone, acidification, elevated CO2 and nutrient pollution. At intermediate levels, species loss generally had equal or greater effects on decomposition than did elevated CO2 and nitrogen addition. The identity of species lost also had a large effect on changes in productivity and decomposition, generating a wide range of plausible outcomes for extinction. Despite the need for more studies on interactive effects of diversity loss and environmental changes, our analyses clearly show that the ecosystem consequences of local species loss are as quantitatively significant as the direct effects of several global change stressors that have mobilized major international concern and remediation efforts9.

At a glance


  1. Changes in primary production as a function of per cent local species loss.
    Figure 1: Changes in primary production as a function of per cent local species loss.

    Effects of species loss on primary production from 62 studies (379 observations). Thick red line, lower productivity as species richness decreases; grey bands and black error bars, 95% confidence intervals. The thin red line shows the inverse of the thick red line to allow comparison of effect magnitudes with environmental changes with positive effects. Dotted grey lines show the mean effect of each environmental change for comparison with the effect of richness. Right axis, effects of other environmental changes. Blue is for increases and red for decreases in productivity (Table 1 and Supplementary Table 2).

  2. Changes in decomposition as a function of per cent local species loss.
    Figure 2: Changes in decomposition as a function of per cent local species loss.

    a, Effects of detrital consumer diversity on decomposition from 19 studies (54 observations). b, Effects of plant litter diversity on decomposition from 22 studies (60 observations). Thick red lines, slower decomposition rates as species richness decreases; thick blue lines, higher decomposition rate as species richness decreases; grey bands and black error bars, 95% confidence intervals. Thin coloured lines, dotted grey lines, axes and colour coding as in Fig. 1. See also Table 2 and Supplementary Table 3.


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Author information


  1. Department of Biology, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington 98225-9160, USA

    • David U. Hooper
  2. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 735 State Street, Suite 300, Santa Barbara, California 93101, USA

    • E. Carol Adair,
    • Jarrett E. K. Byrnes &
    • Mary I. O’Connor
  3. Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Aiken Center, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405, USA

    • E. Carol Adair
  4. School of Natural Resources & Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1041, USA

    • Bradley J. Cardinale
  5. Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Bruce A. Hungate
  6. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-2525, USA

    • Kristin L. Matulich
  7. Department of Biology, McGill University, 1205 Avenue Docteur Penfield, Montréal, Québec H3A 1B1, Canada

    • Andrew Gonzalez
  8. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, Gloucester Point, Virginia 23062, USA

    • J. Emmett Duffy
  9. Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Box 461, SE-405 30 Göteborg, Sweden

    • Lars Gamfeldt
  10. Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, 2370-6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Mary I. O’Connor


All authors contributed to the design of the study, data interpretation and manuscript editing; B.J.C. and K.L.M. developed the database of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning experiments; D.U.H., E.C.A., J.E.K.B., B.J.C. and K.L.M. collected additional data and performed statistical analyses. E.C.A., J.E.K.B., B.J.C., B.A.H. and D.U.H. drafted the figures and D.U.H. wrote the initial draft.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

The biodiversity and ecosystemfunctioning database is deposited with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (http://knb.ecoinformatics.org/knb/metacat/nceas.984/nceas).

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Supplementary information

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  1. Supplementary Information (1.1M)

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary Figures 1-6, Supplementary Discussions on Productivity and Decomposition and additional references.

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