Species richness, but not phylogenetic diversity, influences community biomass production and temporal stability in a re-examination of 16 grassland biodiversity studies

  • P. Venail (Creator)
  • K. Gross (Creator)
  • T.H. Oakley (Creator)
  • A. Narwani (Creator)
  • E. Allan (Creator)
  • P. Flombaum (Creator)
  • F. Isbell (Creator)
  • J. Joshi (Creator)
  • P.B. Reich (Creator)
  • D. Tilman (Creator)
  • Jasper van Ruijven (Creator)
  • B.J. Cardinale (Creator)



1.Hundreds of experiments have now manipulated species richness of various groups of organisms and examined how this aspect of biological diversity influences ecosystem functioning. Ecologists have recently expanded this field to look at whether phylogenetic diversity among species, often quantified as the sum of branch lengths on a molecular phylogeny leading to all species in a community, also predicts ecological function. Some have hypothesized that phylogenetic divergence should be a superior predictor of ecological function than species richness because evolutionary relatedness represents the degree of ecological and functional differentiation among species. But studies to date have provided mixed support for this hypothesis. 2.Here, we re-analyze data from 16 experiments that have manipulated plant species richness in grassland ecosystems and examined the impact on aboveground biomass production over multiple time points. Using a new molecular phylogeny of the plant species used in these experiments, we quantified how the phylogenetic diversity of plants impacts average community biomass production as well as the stability of community biomass production through time. 3.Using four complementary analyses we show that, after statistically controlling for variation in species richness, phylogenetic diversity (the sum of branches in a molecular phylogenetic tree connecting all species in a community) is neither related to mean community biomass nor to the temporal stability of biomass. These results run counter to past claims. However, after controlling for species richness, phylogenetic diversity was positively related to variation in community biomass over time due to an increase in the variances of individual species, but this relationship was not strong enough to influence community stability. 4.In contrast to the non-significant relationships between phylogenetic diversity, biomass, and stability, our analyses show that species richness per se tends to increase the mean biomass production of plant communities, after controlling for phylogenetic diversity. The relationship between species richness and temporal variation in community biomass was either positive, non-significant or negative depending on which analysis was used. However, the increases in community biomass with species richness, independently of phylogenetic diversity, always led to increased stability. These results suggest that phylogenetic diversity is no better as a predictor of ecosystem functioning than species richness. 5.Synthesis. Our study on grasslands offers a cautionary tale when trying to relate phylogenetic diversity to ecosystem functioning suggesting that there may be ecologically important trait and functional variation among species that is not explained by phylogenetic relatedness. Our results fail to support the hypothesis that the conservation of evolutionarily distinct species would be more effective than the conservation of species richness as a way to maintain productive and stable communities under changing environmental conditions.
Date made available2015
PublisherWageningen UR


  • biodiversity
  • community biomass
  • data-synthesis
  • ecosystem functioning
  • grasslands
  • phylogenetic diversity
  • relatedness stability

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