Key species act as warning signs of ecosystem collapse
“The success or failure of certain species can be used to predict the future health of an entire ecosystem, research says.
The Earth’s biodiversity is under attack. We would need to travel back over 65 million years to find rates of species loss as high as we are witnessing today. Conservation often focuses on the big, enigmatic animals – tigers, polar bears, whales. There are many reasons to want to save these species from extinction. But what about the vast majority of life that we barely notice? The bugs and grubs that can appear or vanish from ecosystems without any apparent impact? Biodiversity increases resilience: more species means each individual species is better able to withstand impacts. Think of decreasing biodiversity as popping out rivets from an aircraft. A few missing rivets here or there will not cause too much harm. But continuing to remove them threatens a collapse in ecosystem functioning. Forests give way to desert. Coral reefs bleach and then die.
New research that I have been involved in suggests that there biodiversity has a value that has been overlooked, but could be vitally important if we are to manage our impacts on ecosystems. Our study, published in the journal Ecology, shows that crucial information about the overall health or resilience of an ecosystem may be lurking in data about supposedly inconsequential species. In fact, the presence or absence of some of the rarest species may be giving us important clues as to how near an ecosystem is to a potential collapse.”