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Fast and slow-living creatures balance a healthy planet

Life on Earth unfolds at wildly different speeds. Towering trees live for centuries, while mayflies die young.

Considering this, scientists at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre set out to understand how different living creatures experience time.

The “slow-fast continuum of life” shows incredible variation and reveals how life has adapted over time. Studying this framework sheds light on individual species, and also on how whole ecosystems work.

Focus of the research

The scientists looked at 2,800 different living things (from tiny microbes to big mammals) across 14 groups. 

“We examined organisms from all areas of the sampled ecosystems – from microorganisms in the soil to plants, butterflies, and other arthropods, to birds and bats,” explained study co-author Dr. Margot Neyret from the University of Grenoble Alpes.

The researchers gathered information on how long the organisms live, how fast they grow, how often they reproduce, and how much they contribute to the environment (like turning dead leaves into soil).

By crunching all this data, the experts created a map showing how long each creature lives. This helped the scientists understand how different living things change their life strategies based on where they live and their surroundings. 

Slow-fast continuum of living creatures

By looking at the different organisms, the researchers discovered a consistent pattern. No matter where they lived or what they ate, all of the creatures could be placed on a spectrum ranging from slow-living (they had long lifespans and slow reproduction) to fast-living (short lifespans and frequent reproduction).

It’s more like a sliding scale – on one end, there are “slow livers” like tortoises that live for decades and rarely reproduce. On the other end, there are insects buzzing through life in mere months, having tons of babies. 

Most living creatures fall somewhere in between, adapting their growth, reproduction, and lifespan to their environment. 

Human interventions

The study also revealed that dramatic alterations in nature’s landscapes, such as through intensive farming, mainly hurt creatures who live slowly. These creatures take longer to grow up and have fewer babies. They are not “quick” at adjusting.

The findings indicate that faster-living creatures, who can adjust quickly, take over and become dominant. However, they might not have as much diversity. The shift towards fast life makes nature less varied, which could hurt its ability to bounce back from imbalances.

“You can visualize this like the fable of the hare and the tortoise- except that, depending on the environment, the ‘race’ is sometimes ‘won’ by organisms with one strategy and sometimes by those following the other,” said study lead author Dr. Peter Manning.

Balance is necessary

Healthy ecosystems need variety. When both slow and fast creatures live together, they handle variations like climate or landscape changes better. 

Slow-living beings, like trees, literally take it slow, but such creatures play a big role in keeping nature stable. Fast ones, like insects, help with essential services like clean air and soil health.

The fast-slow ecosystem team gets weaker without the “slow” players. This study reminds us to protect all kinds of creatures, slow and fast, to keep our natural world strong and healthy. The balance is crucial for a resilient and functional ecosystem, and ultimately benefits everyone. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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