We are in the midst of massive upheaval in the world’s ecosystems, driven by species invasions and the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. How will these changes in biodiversity affect the functions of ecological communities? Will the functions of ecological systems that humans rely on for survival, such as production of oxygen, be impacted by all this upheaval?
Answering these questions requires that biologists have a good metric for biodiversity. New research by Marc Cadotte, Brad Cardinale and I, and published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that one particular metric of biodiversity - evolutionary diversity - is a particularly strong predictor of the biomass produced in plant communities: The more biodiversity present (measured as evolutionary diversity), the more productive the community. In fact, for the datasets we examined, evolutionary diversity was a better predictor of productivity than raw species number or number of functional groups in the community. This suggests that the most evolutionarily diverse communities may function best, and that the most evolutionarily distinct species might be the best targets of conservation efforts aimed at maximizing ecosystem productivity.
One common theme in current ecological research is to ask questions about how changes in biodiversity impact or influence ecological systems or communities. This has obvious importance when we know that many species are going extinct, and that many species are being shipped around the world by human transportation. Often in ecological research, a measure of biodiversity is placed on the X-axis, and some predicted response is placed on the Y-axis, to test if there is a strong relationship. For example, one might predict that less diverse and simpler communities are more susceptible to invasive species compared to more diverse and complex communities. One might also predict that more ecological diversity leads to a healthier ecosystem, as measured by higher production. Namely, a higher diversity of organisms could make more efficient or more complete use of available resources, ultimately leading to a healthier, better functioning ecosystem.
These types of ecological studies usually use a measure of biodiversity referred to as “species richness” as the X-axis variable. “Species richness” is simply a count of the number of species. However, simply counting species makes the assumption that, say, two very closely related grass species contribute the same amount to the diversity measure as two much more distantly related species, such as a grass and a magnolia. In contrast to this implicit assumption of “species richness”, phylogeneticists often think of biodiversity in terms of evolutionary relationships, assuming that differences between species (one way to conceive of diversity) accumulate over the time since they last shared a common ancestor. To a phylogeneticist then, species that share a very recent common ancestor – like the two similar grasses mentioned above – should be nearly identical and therefore represent less total diversity compared to the much more distantly related grass and magnolia species.
We wondered if evolutionary diversity really does matter for predicting how much biomass a community produces, one measure of the health of ecological communities. Decades of experiments have already established that species number (“species richness”) is in fact correlated with productivity – the more species of plants growing together, the more biomass is produced. We extended these studies, weighing different species by how closely related they are evolutionarily. Could we better predict biomass production by also accounting for evolutionary (phylogenetic) diversity? Based on our analyses, the answer was a clear “yes”. Incorporating evolutionary distances into our biodiversity metric resulted in better predictive power of the productiveness of experimental plant communities. The metric including evolutionary history was better than “species richness” and better than the number of functional plant groups, two commonly used metrics of biodiversity.
Our data set was a collection of 40 different previously published experimental studies, conducted around the world using a total of 177 different species of flowering plants. Researchers planted experimental ecological communities, using many different combinations of plant species, and using different numbers of species. Then they let the communities grow, and measured the biomass produced by the different combinations. We added an analysis of the phylogenetic relationships of the plants using publicly available genetic data from four different genes commonly used in other studies of plant phylogeny.
Phylogenetics and Nihilism
Do all ecologists now need to become phylogeneticists? This question is similar to one asked of comparative biologists in the mid 1980’s.
In 1985, Joe Felsenstein wrote a landmark paper introducing the method of phylogenetic independent contrasts, which is now standard in comparative biology. The core message is that we cannot treat species as independent entities because they share a nested set of common ancestors. In other words, species are similar because of descent, not only because of adaptations, and traits might be correlated across species because of shared evolutionary history. At that time, comparative biologists were told they must consider phylogeny when testing for correlations among traits. Felsenstein addressed the question, “What if we do not take phylogeny into consideration [in comparative biology]?” His answer:
“Some reviewers of this paper felt that the message was “rather nihilistic,” and suggested that it would be much improved if I could present a simple and robust method that obviated the need to have an accurate knowledge of the phylogeny. I entirely sympathize, but do not have a method that solves the problem…. Comparative biologists may understandably feel frustrated upon being told that they need to know the phylogenies of their groups in detail, when this is not something that they had much interest in knowing. Nevertheless, efforts to cope with the effects of the phylogeny will have to be made. Phylogenies are fundamental to comparative biology; there is no doing it without taking them into account.”-Felsenstein (1985)
Although other systems and other questions might differ from our study in how diversity relates to ecological processes, it seems to me that counting species is far too simplistic of a metric of biodiversity. If adding phylogenetic information was valuable in one case, it seems worthy of strong consideration any time a metric of diversity is below the X-axis in a graph. To paraphrase Joe, ecologists may understandably feel frustrated upon being told that they need to know the phylogenies of their groups in detail, when this is not something that they had much interest in knowing. Nevertheless, the evolutionary history of their focal communities or systems will often have a lot to tell them. Species are not independent entities, and biodiversity cannot be measured as if they were.
M. W. Cadotte, B. J. Cardinale, T. H. Oakley (2008). Evolutionary history and the effect of biodiversity on plant productivity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (44), 17012-17017 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805962105