An international research team working at UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis recently published a study detailing the impact of biodiversity loss as a result of climate change and pollution in the weekly science journal Nature.

Researchers integrated data from over 200 published studies to trace the effects that different rates of species loss have on various ecosystems. The team of scientists from the United States, Canada and Sweden, headed by Western Washington University biology professor David Hooper, concluded that decreased levels of biodiversity are far more detrimental to ecological progress than previously believed.

According to NCEAS Postdoctoral Fellow Jarrett Byrnes, research shows that with the current level of biodiversity loss, Earth faces a potential mass extinction in about 240 years. Byrnes said part of the problem stems from constant environmental alteration as a result of pollution and habitat destruction.

“Modern rates of diversity loss [are] a symptom of a number of different human-driven environmental changes,” Byrnes said. “Habitat destruction, over-harvesting, pollution, climate change and more all contribute to the loss of the diversity of life on Earth. If we want to slow the rate of human-caused diversity loss, we need to tackle these problems head-on.”

NCEAS Director Frank Davis said the team studied environmental stressors’ effects on plant growth and decomposition and determined that higher rates of plant species loss are directly linked to more negative impacts on plant growth.

Davis said although biodiversity loss is often overlooked as a major threat to the environment, the study shows that its impact is actually on par with that of pollution and global warming.

“The loss of biodiversity affects the way ecosystems function in terms of human cycling and productivity,” Davis said. “It may affect their ability to recover from extreme drought and it could affect the intangible benefits that people derive from ecosystems, such as an appreciation for diverse wild species.”

Third-year environmental studies major Alyssa Hall said because of the interconnected and complex nature of many ecosystems, the loss of a species can take a severe toll on the rest of the environment.

“Ecosystems are vital for natural resources and for use of plants and animals, so we should not be messing with them,” Hall said. “We don’t know exactly how nature works. The more we take out different species the more changes we’ll see in ecosystems. Think of an ecosystem like an engine. If you’re a mechanic, you need to know about the engine to play with it. If you don’t [know this], you shouldn’t be playing with it or you’ll cause more damage. If we keep making more changes to ecosystems we could be causing more damage.”

Byrnes said biodiversity loss has a tendency to compound itself, often leaving the full extent of its impact greatly underestimated.

“Diversity loss — particularly of plants — can affect a number of other ecosystem functions that are valuable to the maintenance of human life here on Earth,” Byrnes said. “What’s more, this isn’t something that one may notice right off the bat. The loss of a few species may not have a huge impact, but as more and more species are lost, the impacts grow progressively stronger. Species diversity is like the rivets on the wing of an airplane — lose a few and the airplane will still fly, but as more rivets are lost, the chance of the wing falling off increases dramatically.”

Byrnes said the research team plans to continue studying the various, far-reaching effects of species loss on relationships within different ecosystems.

“I think we are just starting to build a picture of how pervasive the effect of species diversity is for human wellbeing,” Byrnes said. “We’ve started to tackle some of the important science behind how diversity may affect the functioning of ecosystems. There is still a lot to learn and a number of different areas to explore. I’m pretty excited to see what we will find as we discover how the beautiful complexity of nature shapes the world around us.”