Dr. Gianalberto Losapio from the University of Lausanne and University of Milan discusses with us their recently accepted paper “Monitoring and modelling the effects of ecosystem engineers on ecosystem functioning,” as well as their interest and roots in the field of ecology.
About the paper
Our review paper aims at developing a toolkit for the assessment of ecosystem functioning, which includes ecological processes arising from the activity of species. Important ecosystem functions include biomass production, trophic transfer through plants, animals, microorganisms, matter and nutrient cycling, water dynamics, heat mitigation, air regulation, information flows, and disease control. Biodiversity is key in maintaining adequate and stable levels of ecosystem functioning. The greater the variety of species, the greater the functioning and its stability over time. In theory each and all species positively contribute to functioning, but in practice we still have a limited knowledge on the specific role played by species in the ecosystem. From the information available to us today, we can see that some species exert a greater influence on their environment, and hence functioning, than others. Species that are particularly impactful and successful at changing their environment are often referred to as ecosystem engineers. These species directly affect ecosystems by changing the environment, creating new habitats, influencing biogeochemical cycles, increasing biodiversity, and regulating ecological processes. For instance, beavers build dams which alter stream flow and transform terrestrial ecosystems into wetlands. Despite their well-known importance, it is often difficult to predict how ecosystems engineers impact ecosystem functioning.
About the research
Hence, I thought that such an issue may not be restricted to plant ecology, but probably concerned many other groups and systems. Then, I talked to my brilliant colleagues and friends, all PhD students at the time, and we realized that there was a lack of a unified framework for addressing the effects of engineers on functioning. By putting together a variety of information and knowledge on functions of engineers across many different systems—from alpine grasslands to kelp forests and various vertebrates and arthropods—we developed a roadmap for addressing how species maintain functional ecosystems. One of the novelties is that we went beyond standard classification and categorization of ecosystem engineers to look at biodiversity from a process-oriented view. As my brilliant co-authors came from various backgrounds—spanning different fields from marine biology to ornithology and conservation biology—we were ‘forced’ to look at both idiosyncrasies as well as generalities in ecological processes.
In this paper, we provide a toolkit for measuring and monitoring how species influence the processes of ecosystems. This can be used by any ecologist working in terrestrial or aquatic systems, with plants or animals, with microcosmos experiments or real-world ecosystems. In doing so, we highlight a road map for mainstreaming the inclusion of ecosystem engineers in biodiversity conservation. Practitioners such as gardeners in protected areas, managers, or environmental agencies can adapt and implement such a roadmap to their own environment. We propose that including ecosystem engineers in conservation and restoration programs, when supported by an understanding of ecological mechanisms, is essential for preserving biodiversity and maintaining functional ecosystems. In doing so, we conclude the paper with a way forward, a hypothesis that needs to be tested: in the process of ecosystem recovery, engineering effects prevail in early phases while diversity effects become more important in the long-term.
About the author
In a way, ecology has always been around me. Not in an academic sense, but rather from the ground. I grew up close to the last patch of chestnut forest in the working-class suburb of Como, in the Italian Alpine foothills. As a kid, I was impressed by how the forest changed throughout the season. My favourite season was autumn as our game was to collect chestnuts in the forest and grill them over the chimney. Being a son of migrants, every summer we went to southern Italy to stay at my grandparents’ home. Massive olive trees, the red of the soil, and the yellowish color of dried-up plants were in sharp contrast to the lush green left behind. There, my grandma taught me to recognize edible and poisonous plants while my dad showed me the mastery of gardening, planting, and pruning.
Hence, studying environmental sciences at university was an obvious choice. As a tenure-track professor, I would advise students and early career ecologists to look for what triggers their curiosity and their imagination. Refrain from the egocentric obsession for big papers and from the grant rush. Rather, find ways for stimulating your motivation and creativity, and cultivate what you (yes, yourself, not your colleagues, your supervisor, or a potential funder) find most interesting in and about nature. For me, rock climbing is one of the best ways to stay focused, to put things in perspective, and to assign proper importance and value to things. Once things change—and as ecologists we should be aware that things are always changing—such as when our beloved ones become memories, we can value and appreciate ecology even more.
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