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Gianalberto's paper in Functional Ecology

Dr. Gianalberto Losapio from the University of Lausanne and University of Milan discusses with Functional Ecology his recently accepted paper “Monitoring and modelling the effects of ecosystem engineers on ecosystem functioning”.

Here below an excerpt of the article:

About the paper

Our review paper aims at developing a toolkit for the assessment of ecosystem functioning, which includes ecological processes arising from the activity of species. Important ecosystem functions include biomass production, trophic transfer through plants, animals, microorganisms, matter and nutrient cycling, water dynamics, heat mitigation, air regulation, information flows, and disease control. Biodiversity is key in maintaining adequate and stable levels of ecosystem functioning. The greater the variety of species, the greater the functioning and its stability over time. In theory each and all species positively contribute to functioning, but in practice we still have a limited knowledge on the specific role played by species in the ecosystem. From the information available to us today, we can see that some species exert a greater influence on their environment, and hence functioning, than others. Species that are particularly impactful and successful at changing their environment are often referred to as ecosystem engineers. These species directly affect ecosystems by changing the environment, creating new habitats, influencing biogeochemical cycles, increasing biodiversity, and regulating ecological processes. For instance, beavers build dams which alter stream flow and transform terrestrial ecosystems into wetlands. Despite their well-known importance, it is often difficult to predict how ecosystems engineers impact ecosystem functioning.

About the research

Hence, I thought that such an issue may not be restricted to plant ecology, but probably concerned many other groups and systems. Then, I talked to my brilliant colleagues and friends, all PhD students at the time, and we realized that there was a lack of a unified framework for addressing the effects of engineers on functioning. By putting together a variety of information and knowledge on functions of engineers across many different systems—from alpine grasslands to kelp forests and various vertebrates and arthropods—we developed a roadmap for addressing how species maintain functional ecosystems. One of the novelties is that we went beyond standard classification and categorization of ecosystem engineers to look at biodiversity from a process-oriented view. As my brilliant co-authors came from various backgrounds—spanning different fields from marine biology to ornithology and conservation biology—we were ‘forced’ to look at both idiosyncrasies as well as generalities in ecological processes. In this paper, we provide a toolkit for measuring and monitoring how species influence the processes of ecosystems. This can be used by any ecologist working in terrestrial or aquatic systems, with plants or animals, with microcosmos experiments or real-world ecosystems. In doing so, we highlight a road map for mainstreaming the inclusion of ecosystem engineers in biodiversity conservation. Practitioners such as gardeners in protected areas, managers, or environmental agencies can adapt and implement such a roadmap to their own environment. We propose that including ecosystem engineers in conservation and restoration programs, when supported by an understanding of ecological mechanisms, is essential for preserving biodiversity and maintaining functional ecosystems. In doing so, we conclude the paper with a way forward, a hypothesis that needs to be tested: in the process of ecosystem recovery, engineering effects prevail in early phases while diversity effects become more important in the long-term.

Flowchart of the SUP (Shrub, Understorey, Pollinator) model. Leguminous shrubs act as EE facilitating understorey plant diversity and increasing EF provided by pollinators via microhabitat creation. Functional groups are connected by ecological functions (arrows).


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