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New grasslands study has global reach

Results from a research project led by Thompson Rivers University's Dr. Lauchlan Fraser published in the journal Science recently. The paper lends support to a long-standing but controversial ecological hypothesis. Photo by CNW Group/Thompson Rivers University.

July 21, 2015 - Humans depend upon high levels of ecosystem biodiversity, but due to climate change and changes in land use, biodiversity loss is greater now than at any time in human history.

Now, thanks to the findings in a recently published paper in Science, the world's leading journal for cutting-edge research, Thompson Rivers University's Dr. Lauchlan Fraser and his co-authors show a link between plant biomass and species richness in grassland ecosystems – the highest diversity is found at intermediate levels of plant biomass. The results of these findings have global ramifications for the management and conservation of biodiversity.

In their paper, "Worldwide Evidence of a Unimodal Relationship Between Productivity and Plant Species Richness," Fraser designed the experiment and coordinated the efforts of 62 scientists from 19 countries and six continents. He describes the effort of collecting and analyzing the data as "Herculean." This project is part of "HerbDivNet," a network of scientist studying the relationships between plant biomass production and species diversity.

"The project is exciting because it is such a broad international collaboration. We all went into this project on trust, on an idea."

Ecosystem productivity, one factor considered responsible for regulating diversity, has long been a subject of debate. This new research is groundbreaking in that it reaffirms a previously held theory of biodiversity, and challenges a four-year-old article in Science that effectively disproved it.

"The danger in the earlier paper was that it said there was no pattern. That could have thrown us off and we could have gone down rabbit holes looking for patterns.

We wouldn't have come any closer to understanding biodiversity."

With such a tremendous dataset to work from, Fraser is confident there are more discoveries to make.

"This paper only scratches the surface. There are many more papers that are going to come out of this research and the network of researchers continues to grow," he says.