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Press Release 12-086
Plant Diversity Is Key to Maintaining Productive Vegetation

Long-term study finds that each species plays a role in maintaining a productive ecosystem

Photo of prairies and forests in the NSF Cedar Creek LTER site.

NSF Cedar Creek LTER site experiments show what makes prairies and forests most productive.
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May 3, 2012

Vegetation, such as a patch of prairie or a forest stand, is more productive in the long run when more plant species are present, results of a new study show.

The long-term study of plant biodiversity found that each species plays a role in maintaining a productive ecosystem, especially when a long time horizon is considered.

The research found that every additional species in a plot contributed to a gradual increase in both soil fertility and biomass production over a 14-year period.

This week's issue of the journal Science publishes the results. They highlight the importance of managing for diversity in prairies, forests and crops, according to Peter Reich, lead author of the paper and a forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

Reich and colleagues looked at how the effect of diversity on productivity of plants changed over the long-term.

Two large field experiments were conducted at the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Cedar Creek Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Minnesota, one of 26 such NSF LTER sites around the globe in ecosystems from forests to grasslands, tundra to coral reefs.

"This study reveals what short-term experiments have missed: that the effects of biodiversity loss on ecosystems are more complex, severe and unpredictable than previously thought," says Matt Kane, an NSF LTER program director.

"The work shows the importance of doing long-term research," says Kane, "in this case documenting for the first time the critical importance of biodiversity for ecosystem health and sustainability."

The biodiversity experiments at Cedar Creek are the longest-running such experiments in the world, says Reich.

They contain plots with one, four, nine or 16 different species of plants.

The research used long-lived prairie plants, but serves as a model system for all vegetation, whether prairie, forest or row crop.

The study also showed how diversity works by demonstrating that different species have different ways of acquiring water, nutrients and carbon--and maintaining them in an ecosystem.

"Prior shorter-term studies, most about two years long, found that diversity increased productivity, but that having more than six or eight species in a plot gave no additional benefit," Reich says.

The scientists found that over a 14-year time span, all 16 species in the most diverse plots contributed more and more each year to higher soil fertility and biomass production.

"The take-home message," says Reich, "is that when we reduce diversity in the landscape--think of a cornfield or a pine plantation or a suburban lawn--we are failing to capitalize on the valuable natural services that biodiversity provides."

Co-authors of the paper are David Tilman, Forest Isbell, Kevin Mueller, Sarah Hobbie and Nico Eisenhauer of the University of Minnesota, and Dan Flynn of the University of Zurich.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
Becky Beyers, UMN, (612) 626-5754, bbeyers@umn.edu

Related Websites
Cedar Creek: Out of Africa and Into the American Midwest: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=122756&org=NSF
NSF Cedar Creek LTER Site: http://www.cedarcreek.umn.edu/
NSF LTER Network: http://www.lternet.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Map of North America, Hawaii, Greenland and the Caribbean showing NSF's LTER sites.
NSF's LTER sites, including Cedar Creek, span ecosystems: forests, prairies, tundra.
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Photo of scientist Peter Reich conducting an experiment at the Cedar Creek LTER site.
Scientist Peter Reich conducting an experiment at the Cedar Creek LTER site.
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Photo showing a patchwork of plant species in a biodiversity experiment at Cedar Creek.
Close-up of a plant biodiversity experiment at Cedar Creek, showing a patchwork of species.
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Photo of Indian Grass and other prairie plants at Cedar Creek.
Indian Grass and other prairie plants at Cedar Creek bend in Minnesota breezes.
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Photo of an oak savanna with interspersed oaks and grasses at Cedar Creek.
One of the last of Earth's oak savannas--interspersed oaks and grasses--is at Cedar Creek.
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Cover of the May 4, 2012 issue of the journal Science.
The researchers' work is described in the May 4, 2012 issue of the journal Science.
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