Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning: a consensus of current knowledge

January 1, 2005

Humans are altering the composition of biological communities through a variety of activities that increase rates of species invasions and species extinctions, at all scales, from local to global. These changes in components of the Earth's biodiversity cause concern for ethical and aesthetic reasons, but they also have a strong potential to alter ecosystem properties and the goods and services they provide to humanity. Ecological experiments, observations, and theoretical developments show that ecosystem properties depend greatly on biodiversity in terms of the functional characteristics of organisms present in the ecosystem and the distribution and abundance of those organisms over space and time. Species effects act in concert with the effects of climate, resource availability, and disturbance regimes in influencing ecosystem properties. Human activities can modify all of the above factors; here we focus on modification of these biotic controls.

The scientific community has come to a broad consensus on many aspects of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, including many points relevant to management of ecosystems. Further progress will require integration of knowledge about biotic and abiotic controls on ecosystem properties, how ecological communities are structured, and the forces driving species extinctions and invasions. To strengthen links to policy and management, we also need to integrate our ecological knowledge with understanding of the social and economic constraints of potential management practices. Understanding this complexity, while taking strong steps to minimize current losses of species, is necessary for responsible management of Earth's ecosystems and the diverse biota they contain.

Based on our review of the scientific literature, we are certain of the following conclusions:

1) Species' functional characteristics strongly influence ecosystem properties. Functional characteristics operate in a variety of contexts, including effects of dominant species, keystone species, ecological engineers, and interactions among species (e.g., competition, facilitation, mutualism, disease, and predation). Relative abundance alone is not always a good predictor of the ecosystem-level importance of a species, as even relatively rare species (e.g., a keystone predator) can strongly influence pathways of energy and material flows.

2) Alteration of biota in ecosystems via species invasions and extinctions caused by human activities has altered ecosystem goods and services in many well-documented cases. Many of these changes are difficult, expensive, or impossible to reverse or fix with technological solutions.

3) The effects of species loss or changes in composition, and the mechanisms by which the effects manifest themselves, can differ among ecosystem properties, ecosystem types, and pathways of potential community change.

4) Some ecosystem properties are initially insensitive to species loss because (a) ecosystems may have multiple species that carry out similar functional roles, (b) some species may contribute relatively little to ecosystem properties, or (c) properties may be primarily controlled by abiotic environmental conditions.

5) More species are needed to insure a stable supply of ecosystem goods and services as spatial and temporal variability increases, which typically occurs as longer time periods and larger areas are considered.

We have high confidence in the following conclusions:

1) Certain combinations of species are complementary in their patterns of resource use and can increase average rates of productivity and nutrient retention. At the same time, environmental conditions can influence the importance of complementarity in structuring communities. Identification of which and how many species act in a complementary way in complex communities is just beginning.

2) Susceptibility to invasion by exotic species is strongly influenced by species composition and, under similar environmental conditions, generally decreases with increasing species richness. However, several other factors, such as propagule pressure, disturbance regime, and resource availability also strongly influence invasion success and often override effects of species richness in comparisons across different sites or ecosystems.

3) Having a range of species that respond differently to different environmental perturbations can stabilize ecosystem process rates in response to disturbances and variation in abiotic conditions. Using practices that maintain a diversity of organisms of different functional effect and functional response types will help preserve a range of management options.

Uncertainties remain and further research is necessary in the following areas:

1) Further resolution of the relationships among taxonomic diversity, functional diversity, and community structure is important for identifying mechanisms of biodiversity effects.

2) Multiple trophic levels are common to ecosystems but have been understudied in biodiversity/ecosystem functioning research. The response of ecosystem properties to varying composition and diversity of consumer organisms is much more complex than responses seen in experiments that vary only the diversity of primary producers.

3) Theoretical work on stability has outpaced experimental work, especially field research. We need long-term experiments to be able to assess temporal stability, as well as experimental perturbations to assess response to and recovery from a variety of disturbances. Design and analysis of such experiments must account for several factors that covary with species diversity.

4) Because biodiversity both responds to and influences ecosystem properties, understanding the feedbacks involved is necessary to integrate results from experimental communities with patterns seen at broader scales. Likely patterns of extinction and invasion need to be linked to different drivers of global change, the forces that structure communities, and controls on ecosystem properties for the development of effective management and conservation strategies.

5) This paper focuses primarily on terrestrial systems, with some coverage of freshwater systems, because that is where most empirical and theoretical study has focused. While the fundamental principles described here should apply to marine systems, further study of that realm is necessary.

Despite some uncertainties about the mechanisms and circumstances under which diversity influences ecosystem properties, incorporating diversity effects into policy and management is essential, especially in making decisions involving large temporal and spatial scales. Sacrificing those aspects of ecosystems that are difficult or impossible to reconstruct, such as diversity, simply because we are not yet certain about the extent and mechanisms by which they affect ecosystem properties, will restrict future management options even further. It is incumbent upon ecologists to communicate this need, and the values that can derive from such a perspective, to those charged with economic and policy decision-making.

Publication Year 2005
Title Effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning: a consensus of current knowledge
DOI 10.1890/04-0922
Authors D.U. Hooper, F. S. Chapin, J.J. Ewel, A. Hector, P. Inchausti, S. Lavorel, J.H. Lawton, D.M. Lodge, M. Loreau, S. Naeem, B. Schmid, H. SetSlS, A.J. Symstad, J. Vandermeer, D.A. Wardle
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Monographs
Index ID 1016580
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center