As I’ve written before, biodiversity matters. Sadly, we’ve been changing our environments more and more, often to the detriment of other species. Hence the birth of restoration ecology, the discipline that investigates how to restore damaged ecosystems back to their healthy selves. As you can imagine, no easy task.
A recent review in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution identifies some new findings that could prove to be quite relevant and highlights some gaps in the present knowledge.
Without further ado,
- Function, not species. In the context of restoration ecology, species are not equal. Some have a more fundamental function (example: pollination) than others. Also, to reboot ecosystem services, it’s not necessarily the number of different species that matters most, but the functional diversity.
Understanding the aliens. Invasive species are usually not really a good thing as they tend to have bad effects on the species present. However, non-native species need not be all bad. Perhaps they can replace extinct native species that had a similar functional role.
- Monitoring. If you want to restore an ecosystem, you’ll need a way to monitor the progress. Recently, some relatively quick and cost-efficient ways to do this have been suggested, and computer models have been/are being developed to evaluate the stability of the restored ecosystem.
- Ecological engineers. Rebuilding ecosystems isn’t just throwing together the proper species or functional groups. One of the important things is the proper sequence of species introductions. Which species should be introduced before which other ones? In order to be successful, we’ll need people who are aware of these issues and can use their knowledge to propose a good order of species (or group) introductions.
- Landscape. Location matters. Understanding which habitats are present is important. What is also essential is to include species or groups that can link the different habitats, so-called structurally important species.
- Checking the results. After you’ve gone through the whole restoration process, you’ll of course want to know how the ecosystem’s doing. As such, a fairly simple way to do this should be developed. What characteristics should we look at?
- Multifunctionality. Ecosystems fulfill many functions, and the contributions of the different species are probably not limited to just one of these. So, how much overlap is there in the functional contribution of different species? How much is needed? What’s the optimal overlap?
- Not just the easy ones. When assessing the contributions of species and functional groups, many studies are limited to animals and plants. But micro-organisms are very important as well. There are still many questions about them that need to be answered.
- Interaction. The interactions between organisms contribute to ecosystem services as well. And species often require more than one habitat (think nesting and feeding in birds, for example). As organisms move between habitats, they also interact with other communities of species. So, it’s all connected, and we need to understand how.
- Long-term and large-scale. A proper restoration ecology approach should be based on experiments. But ecosystem dynamics can take some time. And place. So experiment of a relatively long duration and in a large area are needed.
So, while the recent findings hint at routes forward, there are still many questions to be addressed.
The authors conclude:
Restoration leads to an increase in ecosystem service provision relative to degraded ecosystems, is usually cheaper than other ‘engineering’ solutions, such as artificial hand pollination, and provides additional services. To achieve the restoration of biodiversity and ecosystem services, restoration actions need to be tightly coupled with ‘state-of-the-art’ scientific progress.
When reading things such as this, my mind can’t help but wander. To the stars. Or, at least moons and planets (to begin with). What has that got to do with it, you ask? Well, if mankind manages to survive and takes to our nearby heavenly bodies, say the moon or Mars, it might be a good idea to think about building small self-sufficient ecosystems there. Perhaps even on the spaceships. Food, water purification, waste processing, oxygen recycling, production of certain compounds,… All things that can be done by a suitably designed ecosystem.
Yes, I know that it’s probably not going to be anytime soon, and that it’s easier said than done, but it still seems like an option worth pondering…
Montoya, D., Rogers, L., & Memmott, J. (2012). Emerging perspectives in the restoration of biodiversity-based ecosystem services. Trend in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2012.07.004