Ancient pollen yields insight into forest biodiversity

Arlington, Va.--By analyzing data on tree pollen extracted from ancient lake sediments, ecologists have sharpened the understanding of how forests can maintain a diversity of species. Their findings indicate that stabilizing processes have been more important than previously thought, and that the human-caused loss of species could upset that stability in ways that remain poorly understood.

"Quantifying the link between stability and diversity, and identifying the factors that promote species diversity, have challenged ecologists for decades," said Saran Twombly, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s division of environmental biology, which funded the research. "The contribution of this study is unique, as the scientists used a clever blend of long-term data and statistical modeling to test the opposing hypotheses of neutrality and stability as key factors promoting community assembly and diversity."

Scientist James Clark and graduate student Jason McLachlan of Duke University, published their findings in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

According to Clark, the purpose of their study was to address a central scientific problem in explaining the diversity of tree species in a forest.

"In the mathematical models ecologists use to describe how different species compete for resources such as light, moisture and nutrients, it can be difficult to get species to coexist," he said. "In models, slight advantages allow one species to 'outcompete' the other, leading to extinction, that is, loss of biodiversity. And so, ecologists have put a lot of effort into trying to understand the differences among species that would allow one species to coexist with another species."

Explaining such coexistence is critical, if ecologists are to truly understand forest biodiversity and the forces that sustain or reduce it, said Clark. According to Clark, two basic hypotheses have arisen to explain forest biodiversity.

Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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