The space between us

Missouri Ozarks study narrows in on spatial aspects of biodiversity, homogenization threat to forest ecosystems


by Talia Ogliore, Washington University in St. Louis
May 31, 2022

A study from the Missouri Ozarks highlights the importance of spatial aspects of biodiversity for healthy functioning of naturally occurring forests.

Biologists from Washington University in St. Louis determined that tree beta diversity — a measure of site-to-site variation in the composition of species present within a given area — matters more for ecosystem functioning than other components of biodiversity at larger scales. The research also shows that the relationship between beta diversity and tree biomass strengthens with increasing spatial scale (the size of an area), a finding that has implications for conservation planning. The study was published in the journal Ecology.

The study was led by Jacqueline Reu, who graduated from Washington University in 2019 with a double major in environmental biology and in physics in Arts & Sciences, as part of her honors thesis in biology. Reu was mentored by Christopher P. Catano, a PhD graduate of Washington University who is now a postdoctoral research associate at Michigan State University, and Jonathan A. Myers, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

The data for Reu’s thesis was collected as part of a large-scale forest ecology project led by Myers’ research team at Tyson Research Center, Washington University’s environmental field station. More than 60 undergraduate students, high school students and research technicians have surveyed more than 30,000 trees for the project.

“A lot of studies have focused only on small scales when they look at biodiversity and ecosystem functioning,” said Reu, first author of the study. “Our study is one of the first that looks at multiple different measures of biodiversity, as well as direct and indirect effects of the environment, on ecosystem functioning as you increase scale in a natural system.”

“Our results back the theory that beta diversity, or the variation in species composition across space, is the best biodiversity measure at larger scales,” she said. “It’s stronger than the other diversity measures that we considered, like local and regional diversity. And its importance increases as you increase spatial scale.”

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