28 Aug 2018 Story Forests

A Chinese subtropical forest reveals hidden secrets

Credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

A ten-year study of a subtropical forest in China by a German-led international team of scientists shows that the variety of animals and fungus species has a decisive role in the health of forest ecosystems.

In our forests, trees are the most conspicuous and prominent life forms. The consequences of reduced tree species diversity are therefore comparatively easy to grasp. In contrast, the diversity of the thousands of sometimes tiny animal and microorganism species is often overlooked, despite the important ecological role they play.

Researchers, led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, studied the complex interdependencies between the various species of beetles, spiders, ants, woodlice and fungi in Gutianshan Nature Reserve, Zheijian Province, southeast China.

They also investigated a variety of processes essential for the functioning of the forests, including the growth of timber, the prevention of soil erosion and the recycling of nutrients. The article, Biodiversity across trophic levels drives multifunctionality in highly diverse forests, was published in July 2018 in Nature Communications.

Understanding the richness of species of herbivores and their competitors can also help us better understand and prevent pest infestation with progressive climate change. Biodiversity, and healthy and intact ecosystems, are essential for resilience, and to ensure that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can be successfully captured in forests and other ecosystems. UN Environment focuses on ecosystem resilience to prepare societies for the impacts of climate change.

Insects of all kinds play an important role in forest ecology. Photo by Pixabay

The study showed that individual functions and multifunctionality are more strongly affected by soil biodiversity, fungi and microorganisms than by the amount of tree species.

"By studying ecosystems and their complex interactions between species, we can learn much about 'systems thinking', which we need to address complex challenges such as climate change. Biodiversity is at the heart of climate resilience and needs more attention in our climate action," says Tim Christophersen, Coordinator of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch at UN Environment.

What is multitrophic biodiversity and why is it important?

Multitrophic biodiversity refers to the multitude of diverse animals, plants and fungi which interact with, or feed on, each other for their survival. These interactions create biodiverse ecosystems crucial to human well-being.

The bulk of the planet’s biodiversity lies in tropical terrestrial regions, in forests such as the one scrutinized by scientists in this study. They conclude that multitrophic biodiversity is key to understanding the drivers of ecosystem multifunctionality in biodiverse subtropical forests.

Further resources:

Biodiversity across trophic levels drives multifunctionality in highly diverse forests

For further information: Tim Christophersen: Tim.Chrstophersen[at]un.org