Biodiversity change and ecosystem function in tropical forests
Recent debate about the fate of tropical forests has focused attention on the consequences of forest degradation and fragmentation for their diversity and composition, and the likely functional consequences of these changes. Existing data suggest that the responses of tropical forest plant and animal communities to habitat change are idiosyncratic, although a few consistent patterns are emerging. In particular, it is apparent that conventional diversity and richness metrics may not adequately represent anthropogenic changes to community structure and organisation. A widespread trend is towards 'biotic homogenisation': while disturbed forests may often have an equal or even a greater number of species than undisturbed forests, these species are typically drawn from a restricted pool; and endemic, restricted-range or habitat-specialist species are most likely to decline or go extinct. Similarly, studies have documented marked changes in the structure of food webs, even where the richness and diversity of component species remains little altered. What are the likely consequences of such changes for the important ecosystem functions performed by biodiversity, such as pollination and decomposition? Much of the extensive literature on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function is of limited utility for answering this question, because experimental designs do not consider species-specific contributions to ecosystem function, abundance, degree of redundancy, or extinction-proneness; and few such studies have been carried out under realistic levels of diversity under field conditions, particularly in high-diversity ecosystems such as tropical forests. Furthermore, the focus has almost always been on richness as the explanatory variable, rather than the composition or structural attributes of communities. I briefly review recent papers that have begun to tackle these important issues, and consider how future research might help us understand the functional consequences of realistic changes to species composition and food-web 'biostructure' in tropical forests. © 2008 Gesellschaft für Ökologie.