The value of biodiversity experiments
Schmid B., Hector A.
Recent biodiversity experiments have investigated the relationship between diversity and ecosystem functioning by synthesizing plant communities from pools of species that have been experimentally manipulated to vary numbers and types of species present while holding abiotic factors constant. Biodiversity experiments therefore focus on a previously under-explored aspect of global change: the feedback from diversity to environment. Consequences of random manipulation of species communities may not correspond well to those of specific extinction sequences observed in the past in response to extinction drivers that cause highly non-random loss. However, random manipulation provides a good starting point given that existing communities could undergo many alternative orders of species loss in the future in response to a variety of different potential extinction drivers. Further, the effects of some extinction drivers are currently poorly understood and therefore difficult to predict (e.g. climate change) and it may be premature to dismiss the predictions of random scenarios as irrelevant to all real examples of species loss. The first generations of biodiversity experiments have provided valuable, and sometimes unexpected, discoveries about the general nature of the relationship between diversity and ecosystem functioning. These discoveries could not have been made using observational studies. We propose that different examples of extinction loss in the real or a potential future world form a continuum from situations where the results of the first-generation biodiversity experiments will be highly relevant to less relevant. At the one extreme are examples where the effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning will be overwhelmed by direct effects of the extinction driver on processes (e.g. chronic eutrophication). At the other extreme are situations where ecosystem processes are not strongly affected by direct effects of the extinction driver and where the effects of species loss on functioning may be more important (e.g. habitat fragmentation). Given the unprecedented uncertainty about the future of biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems, a general approach with randomly varying species pools was the right place to start in order to provide a general foundation. The new challenge is to test for effects of biodiversity on functioning in real-world examples of species loss. © 2004 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.