As the health of ecosystems in parts of the world declines due to a variety of growing threats, scientists continue to search for clues to help prevent future collapses.
New analysis led by scientists around the world, led by a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, deepens scientific understanding of interactions between species and how diversity contributes to maintaining healthy ecosystems .
A coalition of 49 researchers examined a deep well of data describing tree species in forests located in a wide range of countries, ecosystems and latitudes. Information on the 16 forest diversity patches in Panama, China, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico and other localities – many of which are in remote and inaccessible areas – has been gathered by hundreds of scientists and d students for decades.
Principal researcher Christopher Wills, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus in the Division of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego, says the new study addresses big questions about these complex ecosystems – made up of trees, animals, of insects and even bacteria and viruses – and how such astonishing diversity is maintained to support forest health.
The new analysis, considered the most detailed study of such a huge ecological data set, is published in the journal Computational Biology PLOS.
“Observational and experimental evidence shows that all ecosystems are characterized by strong interactions between and among their many species. These networks of interactions can be important contributors to the preservation of ecosystem diversity,” said Wills.
The authors note, however, that many of these interactions – including those involving microscopic pathogens and the chemical defenses mounted by their prey – are not easy to identify and analyze in ecosystems that number tens to hundreds of millions of people. inhabitants.
The researchers used a detailed calculation tool to extract hidden details from the forest census data. Their new “even-ring-shaped” method identifies pairs and groups of tree species that exhibit unusually high or low levels of species interactions affecting their recruitment, mortality and growth. The authors unexpectedly discovered that pairs of closely related tree species in a forest often interact weakly with each other, while distant pairs can often interact with surprising strength. This new information enables the design of further fieldwork and experiments to identify the many other species of organisms that may influence these interactions. These studies will in turn pave the way for understanding the roles of these networks of interactions in the stability of ecosystems.
Most of the thousands of significant interactions revealed by the new analysis were of types that give tree species benefits if they are rare. However, the benefits disappear when these species become common. Some well-studied examples of these endangered benefits involve diseases of certain tree species. These specialized diseases are less likely to spread when their host trees are scarce, and more likely to spread when hosts are abundant. Such interaction patterns can help maintain many different host tree species in an ecosystem simultaneously.
“We explored how our method can be used to identify the interactions between species that play the biggest role in maintaining ecosystems and their diversity,” said Wills. “The interaction we have found between and among species helps explain how the many species in these complex ecosystems can protect ecosystems from environmental change, thereby allowing ecosystems themselves to survive.”
In the future, scientists plan to continue using the data to help uncover specific influences critical to ecosystem health.
“We want to show how we can maintain the diversity of the planet while preserving ecosystems that will help our own survival,” said Wills.
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Material provided by University of California – San Diego. Original written by Mario Aguilera. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.