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Am J Bot. 2011 Mar;98(3):572-92. doi: 10.3732/ajb.1000364. Epub 2011 Mar 2.

The functional role of producer diversity in ecosystems.

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  • 1School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, 440 Church Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA.


Over the past several decades, a rapidly expanding field of research known as biodiversity and ecosystem functioning has begun to quantify how the world's biological diversity can, as an independent variable, control ecological processes that are both essential for, and fundamental to, the functioning of ecosystems. Research in this area has often been justified on grounds that (1) loss of biological diversity ranks among the most pronounced changes to the global environment and that (2) reductions in diversity, and corresponding changes in species composition, could alter important services that ecosystems provide to humanity (e.g., food production, pest/disease control, water purification). Here we review over two decades of experiments that have examined how species richness of primary producers influences the suite of ecological processes that are controlled by plants and algae in terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems. Using formal meta-analyses, we assess the balance of evidence for eight fundamental questions and corresponding hypotheses about the functional role of producer diversity in ecosystems. These include questions about how primary producer diversity influences the efficiency of resource use and biomass production in ecosystems, how primary producer diversity influences the transfer and recycling of biomass to other trophic groups in a food web, and the number of species and spatial /temporal scales at which diversity effects are most apparent. After summarizing the balance of evidence and stating our own confidence in the conclusions, we outline several new questions that must now be addressed if this field is going to evolve into a predictive science that can help conserve and manage ecological processes in ecosystems.

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