Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Productivity and sustainability influenced by biodiversity in grassland ecosystems


THE functioning and sustainability of ecosystems may depend on their biological diversity1–8. Elton's9 hypothesis that more diverse ecosystems are more stable has received much attention1,3,6,7,10–14, but Darwin's proposal6,15 that more diverse plant communities are more productive, and the related conjectures4,5,16,17 that they have lower nutrient losses and more sustainable soils, are less well studied4–6,8,17,18. Here we use a well-replicated field experiment, in which species diversity was directly controlled, to show that ecosystem productivity in 147 grassland plots increased significantly with plant biodiversity. Moreover, the main limiting nutrient, soil mineral nitrogen, was utilized more completely when there was a greater diversity of species, leading to lower leaching loss of nitrogen from these ecosystems. Similarly, in nearby native grassland, plant productivity and soil nitrogen utilization increased with increasing plant species richness. This supports the diversity–productivity and diversity–sustainability hypotheses. Our results demonstrate that the loss of species threatens ecosystem functioning and sustainability.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Ehrlich, P. & Ehrlich, A. Extinction (Random House, New York, 1981).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Wilson, E. O. The Diversity of Life (Belknap, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  3. McNaughton, S. J. Am. Nat. 111, 515–525 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Ewel, J. J., Mazzarino, M. J. & Berish, C. W. Ecol. Applic. 1, 289–302 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Vitousek, P. M. & Hooper, D. U. in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function (eds Schulze, E. D. & Mooney, H. A.) 3–14 (Springer, Berlin, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  6. McNaughton, S. J. in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function (eds Schulze, E. D. & Mooney, H. A.) 361–384 (Springer, Berlin, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Tilman, D. & Downing, J. A. Nature 367, 363–365 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Naeem, S., Thompson, L. J., Lawler, S. P., Lawton, J. H. & Woodfin, R. M. Nature 368, 734–737 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Elton, C. S. The Ecology of Invasion by Animals and Plants (Chapman and Hall, London, 1958).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  10. May, R. M. Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems (Princeton Univ. Press, 1973).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Goodman, D. Q. Rev. Biol. 50, 237–266 (1975).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. King, A. W. & Pimm, S. L. Am. Nat. 122, 229–239 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Pimm, S. L. Nature 307, 321–326 (1984).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Tilman, D. Ecology (in the press).

  15. Darwin, C. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Murray, London, 1859).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Ehrlich, P. R. & Mooney, H. A. BioScience 33, 248–254 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Swift, M. J. & Anderson, J. M. in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function (eds Schulze, E. D. & Mooney, H. A.) 15–41 (Springer, Berlin, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Naeem, S., Thompson, L. J., Lawler, S. P., Lawton, J. H. & Woodfin, R. M. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B347, 249–262 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Lawton, J. H. & Brown, V. K. in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function (eds Schulze, E. D. & Mooney, H. A.) 255–270 (Springer, Berlin, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Givnish, T. J. Nature 371, 113–114 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Tilman, D., Downing, J. & Wedin, D. Nature 371, 114 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Andre, M., Brechignac, P. & Thibault, P. Nature 371, 565 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Naeem, S., Thompson, L. J., Lawler, S. P., Lawton, J. H. & Woodfin, R. M. Nature 371, 565 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Tilman, D. Oikos 58, 3–15 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. McKane, R. B., Grigal, D. F. & Russelle, M. P. Ecology 71, 1126–1132 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Chabot, B. F. & Mooney, H. A. (eds) Physiological Ecology of North American Plant Communities (Chapman and Hall, New York, 1985).

  27. Givnish, T. J. (ed.) On the Economy of Plant Form and Function (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).

  28. Grime, J. P. Nature 242, 344–347 (1973).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Tilman, D. & Pacala, S. in Species Diversity in Ecological Communities (eds Ricklefs, R. & Schluter, D.) 13–25 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  30. Pimm, S. L., Russell, G. J., Gittleman, J. L. & Brooks, T. M. Science 269, 347–350 (1995).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tilman, D., Wedin, D. & Knops, J. Productivity and sustainability influenced by biodiversity in grassland ecosystems. Nature 379, 718–720 (1996).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing