Global meta-analysis reveals no net change in local-scale plant biodiversity over time Academic Article uri icon


  • Global biodiversity is in decline. This is of concern for aesthetic and ethical reasons, but possibly also for practical reasons, as suggested by experimental studies, mostly with plants, showing that biodiversity reductions in small study plots can lead to compromised ecosystem function. However, inferring that ecosystem functions will decline due to biodiversity loss in the real world rests on the untested assumption that such loss is actually occurring at these small scales in nature. Using a global database of 168 published studies and >16,000 nonexperimental, local-scale vegetation plots, we show that mean temporal change in species diversity over periods of 5-261 y is not different from zero, with increases at least as likely as declines over time. Sites influenced primarily by plant species' invasions showed a tendency for declines in species richness, whereas sites undergoing postdisturbance succession showed increases in richness over time. Other distinctions among studies had little influence on temporal richness trends. Although maximizing diversity is likely important for maintaining ecosystem function in intensely managed systems such as restored grasslands or tree plantations, the clear lack of any general tendency for plant biodiversity to decline at small scales in nature directly contradicts the key assumption linking experimental results to ecosystem function as a motivation for biodiversity conservation in nature. How often real world changes in the diversity and composition of plant communities at the local scale cause ecosystem function to deteriorate, or actually to improve, remains unknown and is in critical need of further study.


  • Vellend, M
  • Baeten, L
  • Myers-Smith, IH
  • Elmendorf, SC
  • Beausejour, R
  • Brown, CD
  • De Frenne, P
  • Verheyen, K
  • Wipf, Sonja

publication date

  • 2013