Recent Research: Biodiversity

These days, biodiversity loss is one of the primary hot-button issues in conservation, and loss of biodiversity has been an issue of concern for quite some time. So, today I’m going to talk about it a little bit, in light of a recent research article published in Ecology Letters.

Biodiversity is important. It’s a major indicator of the health of an ecosystem, and it’s also an important contributor to the ecosystem’s well-being. Ecosystems with low biodiversity – either inhabited by only a small number of species, or dominated by a few species, with other species being relegated to marginal roles – tend to be more susceptible to other environmental threats, like pollution and temperature changes. Ecosystems that lose biodiversity become less stable and less resilient against further damage.

When trying to understand the current state of biodiversity and gauge the effectiveness of current conservation efforts, it’s important to know how things have been in the past, and what changes have taken place over the long term. To that end, researchers Carvalheiro, et al. conducted a broad analysis of insect and plant biodiversity, using data collected over the course of six decades.

Carvalheiro, et al. looked at data on the biodiversity of plants and flower-visiting insects (bees, hoverflies, and butterflies) in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium, from 1950 to 2009. The study examined biodiversity over a large spectrum of spatial ranges, from 10 x 10 kilometer chunks at the smallest to entire countries at the large end of the scale. This allowed the researchers to compare patterns of change at local, regional, and nation-wide levels.

Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium have instituted fairly rigorous conservation efforts in the past few decades, and the findings in this study reflect positively on those efforts. They indicate that biodiversity fell most precipitously from about 1950 to 1990, coinciding with a period of rapid habitat loss. However, since about 1990, an upturn in public awareness and the institution of good conservation measures slowed the loss of biodiversity in these countries. That’s not to say that biodiversity isn’t still declining – it is – but this analysis tells us that careful conservation efforts can be successful in slowing the loss of biodiversity.

Results aside, the methods used for analysis in this study were pretty interesting in and of themselves. The researchers didn’t go out and collect data themselves. Instead, they collated a huge tangle of existing data – gathered with a variety of different methods, sample sizes, and areas of interest – and performed a variety of statistical tests to decipher patterns of change over 20-year chunks of time 1950 to the present. Despite the challenges of working with non-standardized data, the researchers were able to glean some meaningful and highly robust patterns. Nevertheless, they do note that consistent data collection over time is important for long-term ecological study.

The researchers conclude on a note of hope. Biodiversity loss has become less severe in response to well-managed conservation efforts in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Conservation efforts are valuable, worthwhile endeavors; instituting them in other countries, and continuing them where they already exist, could further help counteract today’s rapid biodiversity loss.

Carvalheiro, Luisa Gigante, William E. Kunin, Petr Keil, Jesus Aguirre-Gutiérrez, William Nicolaas Ellis, Richard Fox, Quentin Groom, Stephan Hennekens, Wouter Van Landuyt, Dirk Maes, Frank Van de Meutter, Denis Michez, Pierre Rasmont, Baudewijn Ode, Simon Geoffrey Potts, Menno Reemer, Stuart Paul Masson Roberts, Joop Shaminée, Michiel F. WallisDeVries, Jacobus Christiaan Biesmeijer. “Species richness declines and biotic homogenization have slowed down for NW-European pollinators and plants.” Ecology Letters. Published online May 21, 2013. Doi: 10.1111/ele.12121

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