Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »

Different is better

6 03 2012

I found a nice complement to my More is Better post from January where I reported the results of a new meta-analysis demonstrating how higher species evenness and diversity engendered greater forest productivity – great empirical evidence for the so-called diversity-productivity relationship.

The latest paper adding convincing evidence regarding the important role of species diversity in maintaining ecosystem function comes from Marc Cadotte and colleagues published online early in Ecology. The paper, Phylogenetic diversity promotes ecosystem stability, looks at the problem from a slightly different angle.

If you recall from Zhang and colleagues, forest plots composed of many different species were more productive than single-species stands, and more ‘even’ (i.e., a metric which includes relative abundance of each species in system) stands were more productive, and better at explaining the variance in productivity than species richness alone.

Of course, species richness is considered only a blunt instrument to measure ‘biodiversity’, with evenness providing only a slight improvement. Ideally, we should be talking about genetic diversity considering this is the fundamental unit on which most of evolutionary processes operate (i.e., genes and gene complexes).

So Cadotte and colleagues measured genetic diversity within experimental plots of grassland savanna species established in Minnesota, USA (i.e., consisting of C3 grasses, C4 grasses, legumes, non-legume herbaceous forbs and two woody species) and compared this to ecosystem ‘stability’ (i.e., above-ground biomass divided by inter-annual standard deviation). They measured genetic diversity using four different metrics:

  1. the sum of the phylogenetic branch lengths represented by a set of co-occurring species
  2. the mean nearest taxon distance = the average of the shortest phylogenetic distance for each species to its closest relative
  3. the mean pairwise distance = the average of all phylogenetic distances connecting species in the sample; and
  4. an entropic measure based on the relative distribution of evolutionary distinctiveness, measured as the amount of a species’ evolutionary history that is not shared with other species Read the rest of this entry »

More is better

18 01 2012

In one of those rare moments of perusing the latest ecological literature, I stumbled across an absolute gem, and one that has huge conservation implications. Now, I’m really no expert in this particular area of ecology, but I dare say the paper I’m about to introduce should have been published in Nature or Science (I suspect it was submitted to at least one of these journals first). It was still published in an extremely high-impact journal in ecology though – the Journal of Ecology produced by the British Ecological Society (and one in which I too have had the honour of publishing an article).

Before I get into specifics, I have to say that one thing we conservation biologists tend to bang on about is that MORE SPECIES = BETTER, regardless of the ecosystem in question. We tend to value species richness as the gold standard of ecosystem ‘health’ and ‘resilience’, whether or not there is strong empirical evidence in support. It’s as if the more-is-better mantra strikes an intuitive chord and must, by all that’s ecologically right in the world, be true.

Of course, measuring what is ‘better’ is a difficult task, especially when we are talking about complex ecosystems comprising thousands, if not millions, of species. Does ‘better’ refer to the most temporally stable, the most genetically diverse, the most resilient to perturbation, or the provider of the greatest number of functions and hence, ecosystem services?

It’s up to you, but all these things tend to be difficult to measure for a large number of species and over time scales of sufficient duration to measure change. So the default for plants (i.e., the structural framework of almost all ecosystems) I guess has come down to a simpler measure of success – ‘productivity’. This essentially means how much biomass is produced per unit area/volume per time step. It’s not a great metric, but it’s probably one of the more readily quantifiable indices.

Enter the so-called ‘diversity-productivity relationship’, or ‘DPR’, which predicts that higher plant species diversity should engender higher net productivity (otherwise known as the ‘net biodiversity effect’). Read the rest of this entry »


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