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The results of biodiversity–ecosystem functioning experiments are realistic


A large body of research shows that biodiversity loss can reduce ecosystem functioning. However, much of the evidence for this relationship is drawn from biodiversity–ecosystem functioning experiments in which biodiversity loss is simulated by randomly assembling communities of varying species diversity, and ecosystem functions are measured. This random assembly has led some ecologists to question the relevance of biodiversity experiments to real-world ecosystems, where community assembly or disassembly may be non-random and influenced by external drivers, such as climate, soil conditions or land use. Here, we compare data from real-world grassland plant communities with data from two of the largest and longest-running grassland biodiversity experiments (the Jena Experiment in Germany and BioDIV in the United States) in terms of their taxonomic, functional and phylogenetic diversity and functional-trait composition. We found that plant communities of biodiversity experiments cover almost all of the multivariate variation of the real-world communities, while also containing community types that are not currently observed in the real world. Moreover, they have greater variance in their compositional features than their real-world counterparts. We then re-analysed a subset of experimental data that included only ecologically realistic communities (that is, those comparable to real-world communities). For 10 out of 12 biodiversity–ecosystem functioning relationships, biodiversity effects did not differ significantly between the full dataset of biodiversity experiments and the ecologically realistic subset of experimental communities. Although we do not provide direct evidence for strong or consistent biodiversity–ecosystem functioning relationships in real-world communities, our results demonstrate that the results of biodiversity experiments are largely insensitive to the exclusion of unrealistic communities and that the conclusions drawn from biodiversity experiments are generally robust.

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Fig. 1: Experimental versus real-world communities.
Fig. 2: BEF relationships.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of our study are available at

Code availability

The R code to reproduce the findings and figures of our study is available at


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We thank the establishers, maintainers, coordinators, technical and research staff, and data owners of all involved projects, as well as the TRY initiative. We thank S. Soliveres and E. Allan for discussion; S. Thiel, G. Luo, D. Bahauddin and F. Schneider for help with data extraction and handling; and R. Junker and B. Blonder for assistance with the calculation of multidimensional hypervolumes. This study was funded through Jena Experiment SP 7 (Swiss National Science Foundation grant no. 310030E-166017/1). Further support came from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, funded by the German Research Foundation (grant no. FZT 118). The Jena Experiment was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant nos FOR 456 and FOR 1451) with additional support from Friedrich Schiller University Jena, the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena and the Swiss National Science Foundation. All Cedar Creek studies are funded by the US National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) programme (grant no. DEB-1234162). F.I. acknowledges funding from the LTER Network Communications Office (grant no. DEB-1545288). We thank the iDiv Data Repository for hosting our R code and aggregated datasets and for performing the related quality checks.

Author information




M.J., P.M., M.F. and F.v.d.P. conceived and designed the study. M.J., M.F., F.I., C.R., S.B., G.B., N.B., J.A.C., J.C.-B., A.E., N.E., G.G., N.H., J.K., V.H.K., T.K., M.L., G.L.P., S.T.M., L.M., Y.O., D.P., P.B.R., D.S., S.S., B.S., D.T., T.T., A.V., C.W., A.W., W.W.W., W.W. and P.M. contributed data. M.J. developed the analytical framework and analysed the data. R.M.-V. constructed the phylogenetic hypothesis trees. M.J. and P.M. wrote the manuscript. M.J., M.F., F.I., C.R., F.v.d.P., S.B., G.B., N.B., J.A.C., J.C.-B., A.E., N.E., G.G., N.H., J.K., V.H.K., T.K., M.L., G.L.P., S.T.M., R.M.-V., L.M., Y.O., C.P., D.P., P.B.R., A.R., D.S., S.S., B.S., D.T., T.T., A.V., C.W., A.W., W.W.W., W.W. and P.M. contributed to the discussion of the results and writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Malte Jochum.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 List of German and US datasets for vegetation and ecosystem function data.

Lists country, project name, project code used in this paper, main reference, number of plots we used, years we have vegetation data for, functions we used including years. Most of the raw data is openly available in various online repositories: Jena Experiment (, Biodiversity Exploratories (, Cedar Creek ( Data from the Saale grasslands (Jena real world) were provided by Christiane Roscher and are currently not openly available. Aggregated datasets used for this study are now available online101.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Temporal movement of Jena invasion communities into the real-world realm.

Based on the PCA in Fig. 1a. Different shades of purple show Jena invasion communities across the years from 2003-2009. Orange and gray ellipses show 95% confidence intervals for Jena Experiment and combined real-world plots (but their communities are not plotted here), respectively. Note that while the points in different panels are from single years, the ellipses are fixed to the across-year comparison in Fig. 1a. The last panel shows the PCA factor loadings for the 12 vif-selected community properties (arrows scaled to improve visibility - “const=25” in R vegan “biplot” function87). Within six years of succession, the plant communities of Jena invasion plots fully “moved” into the core of the community property space defined by the combined real-world plots (German real world and Jena real world, respectively).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Violin plots of all 21 community properties of German data.

Experimental (E, Jena Experiment, strong orange, 82 plots), unrealistic experimental (unreal., intermediate orange, 59 plots), selected realistic experimental (real., weak orange, 23 plots) and combined real-world plots (German real world, Jena real world, gray, 164 plots), all averaged across years per plot. Combination of boxplot and rotated kernel density plot (R package “vioplot”51). Realistic plots were calculated based on the 12 vif-selected community properties and the convex hull volume method. Units: leaf area (mm²), leaf dry mass (mg), leaf dry matter content (LDMC, g/g), leaf nitrogen concentration (leaf N, mg/g), leaf phosphorus concentration (leaf P, mg/g), plant height (m), specific leaf area (SLA, mm²/mg) and seed mass (dry mass in mg). Other community properties are dimensionless.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Violin plots of all 21 community properties of US data.

Experimental (E, BioDIV, strong orange, 159 plots), unrealistic experimental (unreal., intermediate orange, 37 plots), selected realistic experimental (real., weak orange, 122 plots) and combined real-world plots (Fertilization 1 & 2, gray, 369 plots), all averaged across years per plot. Combination of boxplot and rotated kernel density plot (R package “vioplot”51). Realistic plots were calculated based on the 12 vif-selected community properties and the convex hull volume method. Units: leaf area (mm²), leaf dry mass (mg), leaf dry matter content (LDMC, g/g), leaf nitrogen concentration (leaf N, mg/g), leaf phosphorus concentration (leaf P, mg/g), plant height (m), specific leaf area (SLA, mm²/mg) and seed mass (dry mass in mg). Other community properties are dimensionless.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Model parameters for BEF relationships presented in Fig. 2.

Values are presented for unconstrained (u) and constrained (c) models of Jena (J) and BioDIV BEF relationships. Constraining was done using the 12 vif-selected community properties and the convex hull method. Sample size (n), slope estimates (slop), lower (low) and upper (upp) 95% confidence intervals, p-values (p) and adjusted R2 values (R2). All values are rounded to two decimal places.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Variance explained by 12 PCA axes (12 vif-selected community properties).

Percentage of total variance explained by each of the 12 PCA axes (PC’s, see Fig. 1) for each region (GER = Germany and US = USA). Rounded to two decimal places.

Extended Data Fig. 7 PCA scores for 12 vif-selected community properties of PCA’s in Fig. 1.

Scores have been produced using the scores() command of the “vegan” package87 in R and have been rounded to two decimal places.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–10, Tables 1–17, Supplementary Information on Sensitivity Analyses 1 and 2, and methods.

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Jochum, M., Fischer, M., Isbell, F. et al. The results of biodiversity–ecosystem functioning experiments are realistic. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1485–1494 (2020).

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