Two papers in the Journal of Vegetation Science (Wardle 2016 and Eisenhauer et al. 2016) continue this discussion regarding the value of BEF experiments for understanding biodiversity loss in natural ecosystems. From reading both papers, it seems as though broadly speaking, the authors agree on several key points: that results from biodiversity-ecosystem functioning experiments don’t always match observations about species loss and functioning in nature, and that nature is much more complex, context-dependent, and multidimensional than typical BEF experimental systems. (The question of whether local biodiversity is declining may be more contested between them).
Biodiversity and ecosystem experiments typically involve randomly assembled plant communities containing either the full complement of species, or subsets containing different numbers of species. Communities containing lower numbers are meant to provide information about the loss of species diversity a system. Functions (often including, but not limited to, primary productivity or biomass) are eventually measured and analysed in relation to treatment diversity. Although some striking results have come out of these types of studies (e.g. Tilman and Downing 1996), they can vary a fair amount in their findings (Cardinale et al. 2012).
David Wardle’s argument is that BEF experiments differ a good deal from natural systems: in natural systems, BEF relationships can take different forms and explain relatively little variation, and so extrapolating from existing experiments seems uninformative. In nature, changes in diversity are driven by ecological processes (invasion, extinction) and experiments involving randomly assembled communities and randomly lost species do nothing to simulate these processes. Wardle seems to feel that the popularity of typical BEF experiments has come at the cost of more realistic experimental designs. This is something of a zero-sum argument, (although in some funding climates that may be true...). But it is true that big BEF experiments tend to be costly and take time and labour, meaning that there is an impetus to publish as much as possible from each one. Given BEF experiments have changed drastically in design once already, in response to criticisms about their inability to disentangle complementarity vs. portfolio effects, it seems they are not inflexible about design though.
Eisenhauer et al. agree in principle that current experiments frequently lack a realistic design, but suggest that there are plenty of other types of studies (looking at functional diversity or phylogenetic diversity, for example, or using random loss of species) being published as well. For them too, there is value in having multiple similar experiments: this allows metaanalysis and comparison aggregation, and will help to tease apart the important mechanisms eventually. Further, realism is difficult to obtain in the absence of a baseline for a “natural, untouched, complete system” from which to remove species.
The point that Eisenhauer et al. and Wardle appear to agree on most strongly is that real systems are complex, multi-dimensional and context-dependent. Making the leap from a BEF experiment with 20 plant species to the real world is inevitably difficult. Wardle sees this is a massive limitation, Eisenhauer et al. sees it as a strength. Inconsistencies between experiments and nature are information that highlight when context matters. By having controlled experiments in which you vary context (such as by manipulating both nutrient level and species richness), you can begin to identify mechanisms.
Perhaps this is the greatest problem with past BEF work, is that there is a tendency to oversimplify the interpretation of results – to conclude that ‘loss of diversity is bad’ but with less attention to ‘why’, 'where', or 'when’. The best way to do this depends on your view of how science should progress.
Vellend, Mark, et al. "Global meta-analysis reveals no net change in local-scale plant biodiversity over time." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.48 (2013): 19456-19459.
Dornelas, Maria, et al. "Assemblage time series reveal biodiversity change but not systematic loss." Science 344.6181 (2014): 296-299.
Gonzalez, Andrew, et al. "Estimating local biodiversity change: a critique of papers claiming no net loss of local diversity." Ecology (2016).
Tilman, David, and John A. Downing. "Biodiversity and stability in grasslands." Ecosystem Management. Springer New York, 1996. 3-7.
Cardinale, Bradley J., et al. "Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity."Nature 486.7401 (2012): 59-67.