Research Suggests Biodiversity Loss Has Consequences For Ecosystem Productivity

Dec 12, 2018

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management took bids for oil and gas leases on 154,212 acres of public land. This move was criticized by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and the Sierra Club for its potential to cause localized biodiversity loss. But how much can the loss of one or two species matter? 

According to Caitlin Potter, outreach coordinator at one of North America's foremost biodiversity research sites, it could matter a lot.

Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is a 5,000-acre patch of forests and prairie nestled in between corn and soybean fields about 45 minutes north of Minneapolis. It’s unassuming from the road. But it’s internationally famous for its biodiversity research. In the 1990s, Cedar Creek set out to buck long-standing scientific theory.

“For many years, back in the ’70s and the ’80s, scientists believed that diversity was nice but it didn’t really matter,” Potter said.  “As a result, some work coming out of Cedar Creek done by Dr. Dave Tilman was really surprising. He had artificially made a biodiversity experiment. Then there was a pretty severe drought here in Minnesota where Cedar Creek is located. Dave saw something really surprising. He noticed that his low diversity plots did not weather the drought particularly well and his high diversity plots did okay. So he spent some time thinking about his results, and eventually, he went out and planted different plots with different diversity treatments in 1993.”

This experiment, nicknamed the Big Biodiversity Experiment, remains the largest and the longest-running plant biodiversity experiment in the world. And its findings?

“Biodiversity is more important for plant productivity and growth than any other factor we manipulate here,” Potter said.

Potter is confident that the results from Cedar Creek have meaning for biodiversity loss in Utah.

“The Big Biodiversity Experiment has now been replicated at many other sites around the world,” Potter said. “They’ve been done in desert ecosystems, they’ve been done in forests, they’ve been done in bogs. Although the original impetus for the work was done here mostly in prairie communities in Minnesota, there’s now been enough work done to say that these results hold in most systems. Plant some native plants in your garden in Utah; they’re not going to be the same plants I’d put in my garden in Minnesota, but having that native biodiversity is still going to make a difference.”