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Loss of plant diversity threatens Earth's life-support systems

e analysis also suggests, based on laboratory studies of algae, that diverse plant communities generate oxygenand take-up carbon dioxidemore than twice as fast as plant monocultures.

The team's findings are consistent for plant communities both on land and in fresh- and saltwater, suggesting that plant biodiversity is of general and fundamental importance to the functioning of the Earth's entire biosphere.

Duffy, Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of Marine Science at VIMS, says the team's findings are important locally because estuaries like Chesapeake Bay are naturally low in plant diversity, making them especially vulnerable to ecological surprises resulting from loss of species.

"Salt marshes and seagrass beds depend largely on one or a few species of plants that create the habitat structure," says Duffy. "When such species are lost, low diversity means there is often no one else to take their place and the effects can ripple out through the community of animals, potentially up to fishery species."

In addition to analyzing the general effects of biodiversity loss, the team also sought to determine the specific fraction of plant species needed to maintain the effective functioning of a particular ecosystemimportant information for resource managers with limited human and financial resources to manage forests, marine reserves, and other protected areas on land and sea. The results of this effort were mixed, and the team's ongoing research is tackling this question.

Data from the study did suggest, however, that biodiversity loss may follow a "tipping-point" model wherein some fraction of species can be lost with minimal change to ecological processes, followed by a sharp drop in ecosystem function as species loss continues.

Biodiversity loss in the real world

Recognizing that their findings mostly rest on analysis of short-term experiments (generally a few days, weeks, or months) in relatively sma

Contact: Emmett Duffy
Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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