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

Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Changes in primary production as a function of per cent local species loss.
Figure 2: Changes in decomposition as a function of per cent local species loss.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the authors of the original data sets, both published and unpublished, who shared data with us. We thank the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) for funding the workshop “Biodiversity and the Functioning of Ecosystems: Translating Results from Model Experiments into Functional Reality”. Support for NCEAS comes from University of California Santa Barbara and the National Science Foundation. J.E.K.B., E.C.A. and M.I.O. had NCEAS post-doctoral fellowships, J.E.D. had support from NSF OCE-1031061; B.J.C. had support from NSF DEB-1046121; L.G. was supported by grant 621-2009-5457 from the Swedish Research Council VR; A.G. is supported by the Canada Research Chair Program and NSERC.

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Authors and Affiliations

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Contributions

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David U. Hooper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

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).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary Figures 1-6, Supplementary Discussions on Productivity and Decomposition and additional references. (PDF 1165 kb)

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Hooper, D., Adair, E., Cardinale, B. et al. A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change. Nature 486, 105–108 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11118

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