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High plant diversity is needed to maintain ecosystem services


Biodiversity is rapidly declining worldwide1, and there is consensus that this can decrease ecosystem functioning and services2,3,4,5,6,7. It remains unclear, though, whether few8 or many9 of the species in an ecosystem are needed to sustain the provisioning of ecosystem services. It has been hypothesized that most species would promote ecosystem services if many times, places, functions and environmental changes were considered9; however, no previous study has considered all of these factors together. Here we show that 84% of the 147 grassland plant species studied in 17 biodiversity experiments promoted ecosystem functioning at least once. Different species promoted ecosystem functioning during different years, at different places, for different functions and under different environmental change scenarios. Furthermore, the species needed to provide one function during multiple years were not the same as those needed to provide multiple functions within one year. Our results indicate that even more species will be needed to maintain ecosystem functioning and services than previously suggested by studies that have either (1) considered only the number of species needed to promote one function under one set of environmental conditions, or (2) separately considered the importance of biodiversity for providing ecosystem functioning across multiple years10,11,12,13,14, places15,16, functions14,17,18 or environmental change scenarios12,19,20,21,22. Therefore, although species may appear functionally redundant when one function is considered under one set of environmental conditions7, many species are needed to maintain multiple functions at multiple times and places in a changing world.

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Figure 1: Some of the ways that biodiversity can be important for ecosystem functioning.
Figure 2: Sets of study species that promoted ecosystem functioning.
Figure 3: The proportion of study species that promoted ecosystem functioning increased when more (a) years, (b) places, (c) ecosystem functions and (d) environmental change scenarios were independently considered.
Figure 4: The number of study species that promoted ecosystem functioning increased with the number of contexts considered across all studies.


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We thank J. Byrnes, L. Gamfeldt and M. Emmerson for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We thank the Swiss initiative (IPP-2008/23) for supporting this project. The BIODEPTH project was funded by the European Commission within the Framework IV Environment and Climate Programme (ENV-CT95-0008) and by the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science (Project EU-1311). The Jena Experiment was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, FOR 456), Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Max Planck Society, University of Zurich, Swiss National Science Foundation (3100AO-107531) and ETH Zurich. The Wageningen experiment was funded by the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) within the framework of the Biodiversity Programme. Work on the Agrodiversity experiment was funded by the EU Commission through COST Action 852 and Science Foundation Ireland (09/RFP/EOB2546). The BioCON experiment was funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE/DE-FG02-96ER62291) and the US National Science Foundation (Biocomplexity 0322057, LTER DEB 9411972, DEB 0080382, DEB 0620652 and LTREB DEB 0716587). The MEND Irrigation, BioGEN and Rarity–Extinction experiments were funded by the US National Science Foundation (DEB 0639417). The Cedar Creek Biodiversity experiment was funded by the US National Science Foundation. M.L. was supported by The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Discovery Grant) and the Canada Research Chair program.

Author information




F.I. conceived the project; J.C., A.H., F.I., P.B.R., M.S.-L., B.S., D.T., J.v.R., A.W. and B.J.W. designed and conducted experiments; F.I. and V.C. analysed the data, with input from A.H. and M.L.; F.I. wrote the paper with input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Forest Isbell.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-2 with legends and a table of Supplementary References. (PDF 281 kb)

Supplementary Data

This file contains details for each context: experiment, year, place, function, environmental change scenario, and whether each species promoted (1), decreased (-1), or had no effect (0) on ecosystem functioning. NA indicates species was not included in context. (XLS 1203 kb)

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Isbell, F., Calcagno, V., Hector, A. et al. High plant diversity is needed to maintain ecosystem services. Nature 477, 199–202 (2011).

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