There are many reasons to conserve ecosystems, but maybe the most important is that they are our life support systems. Ecosystems perform many functions and services, such as providing clean air and water, filtering waste products, protecting from climatic changes, and feeding us. There is not enough money in the world to pay to replace these services we currently enjoy for free, not by a long shot, and yet we are losing them to habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change. The broad goal of my research is to figure out the best ways of maintaining these functions and services.
The field of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning has been going strong for nearly twenty years now. We have learned that differences are crucial to ecosystem functioning. A group of 10 plants that are very different from each other will produce more biomass than a group of 10 plants that are very similar. These differences are what make up biodiversity.
We’ve known for several years that different functional traits increase ecosystem functioning. These traits can be morphological or physiological, such as height, growth rate, or photosynthetic capacity. More recently we learned that evolutionary differences promote ecosystem functions. Communities that contain distantly related species are more productive than communities of closely related species. We are now just starting to discover that different genotypes within species are also important for ecosystem functioning.
I want to know how all these different components of biodiversity contribute to ecosystem functioning. How will these forms of biodiversity be affected by global change – e.g. invasive species, habitat loss, climate change – and how will ecosystem functions be affected in turn?