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There is little doubt that we are on the cusp of a biodiversity crisis brought about by human activity at the global scale.

  • Current rates of species extinctions are approaching and may even exceed those seen during previous periods of mass extinctions such as the one in which the dinosaurs disappeared. While previous periods of mass extinctions have been linked to dramatic events such as large asteroids crashing into earth, the current spate of extinctions is due largely to human activities such as land-use change, over-exploitation, and climate change.
  • Even where species are not being driven extinct, human accelerated environmental changes such as global warming, climate change, increased nitrogen deposition, acid rain and land-use change are radically changing the face of the planet. Every species on the planet is likely to respond to these changes to some degree. Some species may dramatically increase in abundance, some may be driven to the brink of extinction, while others may shift their distribution to find more suitable environmental conditions.

  • Human activity has also resulted in the transportation of species from their native ranges and introduction into new environments at such a massive scale that some scientists have termed this era the Homogocene. While most species that are introduced into new environments end up having little effect, some become noxious pests that have been estimated to cost the US economy more that $100 billion a year.

While predicting exactly what biodiversity will look like over the coming years is difficult, the end result will inevitable be ecosystems that are functioning with a very different assemblage of organisms. Ecosystems consist of groups of organisms interacting with their abiotic environment, and they perform many functions that are critical for maintaining the conditions that allow for life to occur. Plants and other autotrophs (such as algae in the oceans) are responsible for transforming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the usable forms of carbon that serve as the building blocks for life using energy from sunlight. In addition to sitting at the bottom of the food chain that supplies energy to all other organisms on the planet, plants have the potential to act as a "carbon sink," sucking up and storing excess carbon dioxide produced by human activities and moderating climate change. Animals consume the plants, and in turn provide numerous services to humans including as food, pollination, pest control, and transportation. Millions of species of bacteria and fungi play a critical role in breaking down dead material and reprocessing the nutrients to make them available for plants to continue growing.

One can think of an ecosystem like an extremely complex machine with millions of parts, each part representing a different species. One of the critical questions that concerns ecologists today is trying to understand how such a machine might function in light of the coming biodiversity crisis. If you lifted up the hood of your car and started taking out some parts, moving others around, and adding a couple of extra belts and valves, you probably wouldn't be to happy with the result. Some functions, perhaps your radio, might continue to work, others might immediately stop working, and others might continue to run but be less reliable. While there are many obvious differences between an ecosystem and an automobile, this analogy gives an idea of what the science of Biodiveristy and ecosystem function is trying to understand.

BioMERGE is a group of scientist who are all looking at different aspects of biodiversity and ecosystem function research and who have come together to build a broader and more synthetic vision of this crucial and rapidly changing field of ecology. We are collectively examining the results of numerous studies that have shown that varying biodiversity can have profound effects on ecosystem functions such as primary productivity, nutrient cycling, and decomposition and determining how to apply the results of the studies in a general manner. We are also setting a research agenda by examining where the critical gaps lie in our current understanding of how biodiversity is affected by various drivers and how changes in biodiversity might affect ecosystem functioning. To accomplish these goals requires bringing together scientists from a diverse range of biological disciplines including systematics, evolutionary biology, population biology, community ecology, ecosystems biologists, and biogeochemists.

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From Nature online publication, "Nature Insight Biodiversity"

Have Ecologists Oversold Biodiversity? Some scientists question experiments on how numerous species help ecosystems". From the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function: The Debate Deepens" (excerpts), J. P. Grime,
Science, August 29, 1997

"What is biodiversity and why is it important?" according to the Ecological Society of America

"Biodiversity and ecosystem function: An issue in ecology" Wardle et al., Bulletin of the Ecological Socitiety of America, July 2000.

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