Learning About Biodiversity Loss From Lilliputian Landscapes
The Convention for Biodiversity, ratified at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, stressed the importance of biodiversity for maintaining the life-sustaining systems of the biosphere. The convention also highlighted the need for a deeper scientific understanding of the basic questions related to the loss of biodiversity. For example, are the unprecedented rates of species extinction impairing the functioning of natural ecosystems and diminishing their capacity to adapt to a changing environment? Can we develop measures to allay the effects of species extinction?
These are the kinds of questions Canada Research Chair Andrew Gonzalez is trying to answer. He is focusing on Earth's most common moss species, Pleurozium schreberi. Believed to play a key role in the carbon and nitrogen cycling activity of the Earth's boreal ecosystems, P. schreberi takes centre stage - assisted by other microfauna and flora - in the miniature landscapes created by Dr. Gonzalez. In these natural models, Dr. Gonzalez induces patterns of species extinction among the inhabiting microrganisms that are similar to those which are occurring in ecosystems on a much larger scale. In the process, he is able to assess how biodiversity loss influences the ecological functioning of this micro-ecosystem. Then, by exposing the relatively species-poor ecosystem to conditions mimicking predicted climate change, he examines whether the loss of species diversity has altered the ecosystem's capacity to respond and adapt to a changing environment.
Knowledge of the sort being gained by Dr. Gonzalez helps scientists acquire the basic theoretical understanding - and ultimately develop the technological tools - necessary to plan and implement the measures that will temper the effects of biodiversity loss on Earth's ecosystems.