Understanding forest health means understanding the true nature of biodiversity

Biodiversity cannot be understated or oversimplified

For the future health of forests, we have to think about biodiversity differently

Biodiversity is not just the number of species present in any given ecosystem, but how those species interact and are connected to each other. By protecting individual species, we ultimately protect the way those species can grow and thrive together. We need to understand the bigger picture of biodiversity to understand how ecosystems work, and which ecosystems are more susceptible to collapse.

With extreme weather events increasingly happening due to climate change and human-caused pressure, entire tree species going extinct is becoming a higher risk. Understanding how and why forests consist of species with specific ecological characteristics – of trees with specific characteristics like tree leaf types or tree height and also why they are similar or different – will be key to understanding how ecosystems will respond to climate change. Yet our knowledge of the factors that govern these global patterns is limited.

To understand global patterns of biodiversity better – and how the sudden loss of biodiversity in an ecosystem can have cascading effects – a team of scientists from the University of Montreal, University College London, and ETH Zurich came together to understand these patterns. Published in Global Ecology and Biogeography
, this new science helps us understand how different elements of biodiversity can help us quantify the robustness of ecosystems to disturbance.

“This work identifies global patterns in functional, phylogenetic, and species diversity and allows for inferences on their mismatches and overlaps, which can directly inform our fundamental understanding of global biodiversity patterns, as well as management and conservation activities,” says Professor Andrea Paz of the University of Montreal, lead author of the study.

Forest health is not just determined by the number of species, but also by their evolutionary histories, ecological traits, and how unique those factors are in any given forest. The fact that these different facets of biodiversity each display unique patterns changes our understanding of global drivers of biodiversity. “We need to be able to predict how communities of trees will be impacted by species extinctions not just in sheer numbers – but also in how trees contribute to ecosystem services and the future health of our forests,” says Professor Daniel Maynard of the University College of London. “Quantifying the different components of forest biodiversity shows that different regions across the globe have unique aspects of biodiversity that can help and hinder their resilience to disturbances.”

“Biodiversity cannot be understated or oversimplified. Local species extinctions in temperate forests like in the United States of America, Canada and Northern Europe can lead to dramatic losses of evolutionary and functional biodiversity with cascading effects on the ecosystem services these forests provide. That’s why we have to protect the forests that are still standing and make sure we’re restoring biodiversity in its full glory,” says Professor Thomas Crowther.