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J Anim Ecol. 2006 Jan;75(1):64-79.

Understanding ecosystem dynamics for conservation of biota.

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Centre for Biodiversity Research, 6270 University Boulevard, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, V6T 1Z4, Canada.


1. Ecosystems have higher-order emerging properties that can affect the conservation of species. We identify some of these properties in order to facilitate a better understanding of them. 2. Nonlinear, indirect effects of food web interactions among species can produce counterintuitive changes in populations. 3. Species differ in their roles and linkages with other species in the system. These roles are a property of the system. Such differences in roles influence how we conserve individual species. 4. Ecosystems operate at a multitude of interacting spatial and temporal scales, which together structure the system and affect the dynamics of individual populations. 5. Disturbance also structures an ecosystem, producing both long-term slow changes and sudden shifts in ecosystem dynamics. 6. Ecosystems therefore can have multiple states, determined both by disturbance regimes and biotic interactions. Conservation should recognize a possible multiplicity of natural states while avoiding aberrant (human-induced) states. 7. Ecosystem processes are influenced by the composition of the biota they contain. Disturbances to the biota can distort processes and functions, which in turn can endanger individual species. 8. The goal of ecosystem conservation is the long-term persistence of the biota in the system. There are two paradigms: community-based conservation (CBC) and protected area conservation. Both have their advantages but neither is sufficient to protect the biota on its own. 9. CBC is required to conserve the majority of the world's biota not included in protected areas. However, current CBC methods favour a few idiosyncratic species, distort the species complex, and ignore the majority. More comprehensive methods are required for this approach to meet the goal of ecosystem conservation. 10. Protected areas are essential to conserve species unable to coexist with humans. They also function as ecological baselines to monitor the effects of humans on their own ecosystems. 11. However, protected areas suffer from loss of habitat through attrition of critical areas. Thus, renewal (addition) of habitat is required in order to achieve the long-term persistence of biota in functioning ecosystems. Identification of minimum habitat areas and restoration of ecosystems become two major priorities for future research.

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