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Conservationists have long proclaimed the economic value of biodiversity and the services it provides. The point may be proved in Madagascar, where a determined president and an international conservation coalition are struggling to transform a country noted for its past environmental mismanagement into a new role model for green development.
Species persistence in the face of competitive or predatory pressure has long been assumed to be a consequence of either dynamic equilibrium or stochastic longevity. More recently, however, the complex intersection of nonlinear dynamics with elementary ecological interactions has provided a distinct platform for conceptualizing the problem of species coexistence. One well-known result from nonlinear dynamics is that oscillating systems will tend to coordinate with one another when coupled, even if the coupling is extremely weak. This elementary result yields remarkable insights in many fields of study. Here I summarize recent results showing that a particular structure emerging from a nonlinear analysis of the classic equations of ecology can be merged with more qualitative ideas to form a possible general framework for analyzing species diversity. As a specific example, I examine the case of two consumer–resource systems that, when coupled, inevitably produce some kind of phase coordination. Understanding the nature of that phase coordination provides a qualitative viewpoint for understanding exclusion and coexistence in this example. Finally, I discuss possible applications to other classical ecological questions.
Biodiversity has the potential to influence ecological services. Management of ecological services thus includes investments in biodiversity, which can be viewed as a portfolio of genes, species, and ecosystems. As with all investments, it becomes critical to understand how risk varies with the diversity of the portfolio. The goal of this article is to develop a conceptual framework, based on portfolio theory, that links levels of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the context of risk-adjusted performance. We illustrate our concept with data from temperate grassland experiments conducted to examine the link between plant species diversity and biomass production or yield. These data suggest that increased plant species diversity has considerable insurance potential by providing higher levels of risk-adjusted yield of biomass. We close by discussing how to develop conservation strategies that actively manage biodiversity portfolios in ways that address performance risk, and suggest a new empirical research program to enhance progress in this field.
Seagrasses, marine flowering plants, have a long evolutionary history but are now challenged with rapid environmental changes as a result of coastal human population pressures. Seagrasses provide key ecological services, including organic carbon production and export, nutrient cycling, sediment stabilization, enhanced biodiversity, and trophic transfers to adjacent habitats in tropical and temperate regions. They also serve as “coastal canaries,” global biological sentinels of increasing anthropogenic influences in coastal ecosystems, with large-scale losses reported worldwide. Multiple stressors, including sediment and nutrient runoff, physical disturbance, invasive species, disease, commercial fishing practices, aquaculture, overgrazing, algal blooms, and global warming, cause seagrass declines at scales of square meters to hundreds of square kilometers. Reported seagrass losses have led to increased awareness of the need for seagrass protection, monitoring, management, and restoration. However, seagrass science, which has rapidly grown, is disconnected from public awareness of seagrasses, which has lagged behind awareness of other coastal ecosystems. There is a critical need for a targeted global conservation effort that includes a reduction of watershed nutrient and sediment inputs to seagrass habitats and a targeted educational program informing regulators and the public of the value of seagrass meadows.
Metaphors of competition and progress have played a key role in the scientific conception and public understanding of evolution. These scientific and public aspects have been in continual tension, however, since these metaphors have been broadly interpreted in the social realm despite scientists' attempts to isolate their meaning. To examine how this occurs, I conducted a Web survey of evolutionary biologists (Society for the Study of Evolution), evolutionary psychologists (Human Behavior and Evolution Society), biology teachers (National Association of Biology Teachers), and members of a Teilhardian spiritual organization (Foundation for Conscious Evolution) (N = 1892 respondents). Respondents were asked to evaluate the scientific and social dimensions of 18 evolutionary statements with metaphorical elements, including arms race, complexity, cooperation, drift, intelligent design, progress, selfish gene, sperm competition, and struggle for survival. The responses generally confirmed the demise of a progressive view of evolution, whereas competitive metaphors remained popular even though respondents indicated that they had a negative social resonance. The survey reveals how biological metaphors retain connections to everyday understanding, which has implications for teaching biology and for thinking about how biologists may unwittingly endorse particular social policies with their metaphors.
Bioprospecting has frequently been cited as a sustainable use of biodiversity. Nevertheless, the level of bioprospecting in biodiversity-rich tropical regions falls below its potential, with the result that bioprospecting has produced only limited economic benefits. We present a bioprospecting program that, in addition to promoting drug discovery, provides economic benefits to and promotes conservation in Panama through the sustainable use of biodiversity. The program was initiated using insights from 20 years of nonapplied ecological research to enhance the likelihood of finding treatments for human disease. Samples are not sent abroad; rather, most of the research is carried out in Panamanian laboratories. Panama has received immediate benefits for the use of its biodiversity in the form of research funding derived from sources outside Panama, training for young Panamanian scientists, and enhanced laboratory infrastructure. Over the long term, discoveries derived from bioprospecting may help to establish research-based industries in Panama.