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History can affect the outcome of ecological restoration

According to well-known saying, people who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. A new study led by Michigan State University (MSU) provides further evidence that this may be true. The experts argue that, when it comes to restoring ecosystems to their natural state, people and organizations should not ignore history if they want to repeat successful restoration efforts.

“Restoration is somewhat notorious for giving you different outcomes for very similar approaches,” said study lead author Christopher Catano, a research associate in Plant Biology at MSU. “There’s a lot of variability. What we’re seeing is that the past matters. History matters.”

The scientists worked at a site that was once an active airstrip, and restored its 18 plots to prairie. They kept all the restoration conditions as identical as possible except for when the restoration started. Then, they tracked how different communities of organisms came together in those plots, such as what plant species grew and what organisms they attracted. Besides characterizing biodiversity, the researchers also analyzed how it affected the downstream ecological functions of the plots.

“This has been a huge question in ecology for nearly 30 years now, understanding what are the consequences of biodiversity for the ways an ecosystem functions,” said study senior author Lars Brudvig, a professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at MSU.

Surprisingly, the analysis revealed that more biodiversity did not always translate into a more functional ecosystem. While there is a lot of evidence supporting a positive correlation between biodiversity and ecosystem function, many of the previous studies investigating this issue were carried out in highly controlled environments. With this unique site, designed specifically to examine the effects of history, the scientists noticed that the relationship is more complex in a natural setting.

“We saw relationships that ranged from positive to neutral to negative. In nature, the results are a huge mixed bag,” Brudvig explained. Thus, the influence of biodiversity is often nuanced and complicated and cannot be summed up in a single value or measured quality.

“There isn’t a number for biodiversity that tells you the whole story. In this case, it was the identity of key species and their traits, which are hidden behind numbers, that really matter for how the ecosystems function,” Catano concluded.

The study is published in the journal Ecology.  

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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