Impacts of climate on the biodiversity-productivity relationship in natural forests

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

The biodiversity-productivity relationship (BPR) describes the effect of biodiversity on ecosystem productivity. This relationship forms the basis of our understanding of biodiversity loss and its impacts on the functioning of natural ecosystems, but there are few studies examining the forest BPR—and most of these studies report contrasting results. Some studies show a positive relationship between the number of species present and the productivity in an ecosystem while others show no correlation or a bell shape, in which productivity increases with biodiversity until a point at which more species lead to a decline. 

Professor Songlin Fei (Forestry and Natural Resources) and colleagues from the United States, Sweden, China and New Zealand analyzed data from 2012-16 that included species composition, diameter, height, age and other attributes from more than 115,000 forest plots from the 48 contiguous United States. Their findings reveal that relationships between biodiversity and forest productivity actually depend strongly on climate. For instance, in dry, and especially in warm, climates, productivity increases along with species richness. But in areas that are humid, biodiversity and productivity increase together until a point at which more species begin to cause productivity declines. It is within a particular climate that other factors, including biotic (e.g., stand age and density) and abiotic (e.g., soil properties) can impact BPRs, which helps explain the contrasting results reported in previous studies.

The findings show that a one-size-fits-all approach to managing forests doesn’t work and, depending on the climate, tradeoffs may need to be made when considering whether to maximize productivity or to conserve biodiversity. In addition, future climate change impacts should also be considered when making management decisions—a cool, wet forest today could look much different in the coming decades.

Fei, S., I. Jo, Q. Guo, D. A. Wardle, J. Fang, A. Chen, C. M. Oswalt, and E. Brockerhoff, (2018). Impacts of climate on the biodiversity-productivity relationship in natural forests. Nature Communications, 9: 5436.

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