Connecting Fragmented Habitat Improves Biodiversity

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The Earth is more connected than any of us realize. From the water cycle to the roots of plants to the paths animals take through the forest, these different systems that are in motion around us balance and support us and one another in ways that we don’t fully comprehend. As habitats dwindle around the globe because of human growth and climate change, scientists are working to preserve as much of the natural world as they can.

Longleaf Pine Experiment

An 18-year experiment at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina has begun to show us just how beneficial, vibrant, and communicative our natural world is. In an area large enough to be seen from space, the research focused on plant biodiversity in connected and isolated habitats. The project has been focused on restored longleaf pine savanna, although its footprint could be used in other habitats as well.


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Researchers found that connecting natural corridors of habitat to one another promotes biodiversity in the plants and animals that are able to thrive in those locations. By connecting these spaces, researchers found that plant diversity was preserved and even increased as compared to habitat areas that were left isolated, without a connected corridor. Areas of different shapes and sizes were used as controls to show the growth of longleaf pine savannah in areas that were entirely isolated from one another, next to areas that were connected via a natural corridor.

Study Results

The study found that the number of plant species increased by 14% in the environments that were connected to one another through a natural corridor. The most unexpected result of the study was perhaps the finding that the number of plant species continued to increase, rather than plateau or decrease over time. The increase in biodiversity can be linked to higher plant colonization rates and lower extinction rates. In the isolated patches of habitat, plants were unable to expand to grow in more favorable environments, and were more likely to die off.

A long-term habitat connectivity experiment. Source: Damschen et al., 2019.
A long-term habitat connectivity experiment. Source: Damschen et al., 2019.

The study shows that corridors can help boost the strength of shrinking ecosystems around the world. As forest areas and other unique habitats become more fragmented, the instances of plant species dying off will continue. If these plants are able to move through natural corridors, their influence on the natural world will continue to be a benefit.

Conservation Benefits

This study is a step forward in the conservation of fragile and shrinking ecosystems globally. Although it is not a blueprint for all ecosystems, it can be used to promote the conservation of certain habitats. Rather than focusing on saving a large patch of forest or other environment, there can still be work done to salvage smaller bits of our natural environments and preserve them via natural corridors as protection against extinction.

References

Damschen, E. I., Brudvig, L. A., Burt, M. A., Fletcher, R. J., Haddad, N. M., Levey, D. J., … & Tewksbury, J. J. (2019). Ongoing accumulation of plant diversity through habitat connectivity in an 18-year experiment. Science, 365(6460), 1478-1480. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax8992

Lambert, Jonathan. Connecting our dwindling natural habitats could help preserve plant diversity. 26 September, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/connecting-our-dwindling-natural-habitats-could-help-preserve-plant-diversity

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