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Promoting biodiversity increases ecosystem resilience

In a new study from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, experts have found that it is important to measure biodiversity across regional landscapes over decades, rather than just across a small site in the short-term. The research will ultimately guide conservation planning and support efforts to make ecosystems more resilient.

Biodiversity is traditionally examined using short-term plot experiments in which ecologists monitor the health of a single meadow, forest grove, or pond. The new study emphasizes the importance of conducting biodiversity studies that provide insight on a larger scale. 

“Having low biodiversity is like putting all your eggs in one basket and puts us at greater risk of something catastrophic happening,” said study lead author Dr. Christopher Patrick. “We’ve known this for a long time, but never before have we shown this to be true for entire regions and landscapes.”

The team compiled, analyzed, and modeled data collected over decades across both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The investigation was focused on the abundance and diversity of 50 families of terrestrial beetles in the Sonoran Desert, 25 species of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in the Chesapeake Bay, and 56 species of fish from small streams in Maryland.

A recent drop in SAV coverage within the Chesapeake Bay, as recorded by VIMS’ long-term monitoring program, demonstrates the threats posed by low biodiversity.

“For the past few years, our gains in seagrass coverage were mostly due to the expansion of one species, widgeon grass,” said Dr. Patrick. “That made us vulnerable. When widgeon grass had a bad year in 2019, we saw the single biggest drop in Chesapeake Bay SAV in the history of the VIMS monitoring program. The lesson here is that promoting biodiversity will increase ecosystem resilience.” 

Climate change is increasing the risk for local extinctions, promoting outbreaks of pests and diseases, and diminishing yields from human fisheries and agriculture. This means that conservation efforts are even more urgently needed. 

“Understanding the interplay between regional and local controls of ecosystem variability may aid in the design of more effective conservation actions, management practices, and monitoring networks worldwide,” said Dr. Patrick.

“Our results, bolster the argument for conserving biodiversity by showing that it is needed at both local and regional scales to maintain stable delivery of ecosystem services across entire landscapes.”

“We should not only avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, but ensure that we have lots of different kinds of eggs in lots of different kinds of baskets.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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