MSU shows how history can influence the success and failure of ecological restoration

MSU shows how history can influence the success and failure of ecological restoration

Image: The Arbor Luxe Reserve trial site had the MSU team study how the planting year affected the trajectory of the restored prairie. In the background is native tall bluestalk grass, which stands taller than the purple flowers of spotted knapweed in front, which is native to Europe and generally considered invasive in North America.
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Photo credit: Lars Brudvig



  • MSU ecologists have shown that grassland restoration efforts can have wildly different outcomes in terms of their biodiversity and functionality when the only variable is the year a prairie is planted. They published their results in the journal ecology.
  • The study also reveals interesting new complexities in the relationships between biodiversity and how functional or productive a restored ecosystem becomes.
  • The research builds on nearly a decade of work at a unique restoration site at MSU’s WK Kellogg Biological Station. Proposed in 2013 and established in 2014, the site is both realistic and controlled enough to provide fundamental insight into the role of a country’s history in ecological restoration.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – There is a popular saying that people who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. It turns out there’s another reason not to ignore the story, according to new research from Michigan State University published in the journal ecology.

When it comes to restoring ecosystems to their natural state, people cannot ignore history if they want to replicate successful efforts.

“Recovery is known to produce different results for very similar approaches,” said Chris Catano, a research associate in the Department of Plant Biology at MSU and first author of the new report. “There’s a lot of variability.”

Catano works with Lars Brudvig, a professor at the College of Natural Science. One of Brudvig Lab’s projects sheds light on the fundamental factors that contribute to this variability. With support from the National Science Foundation, this new study focuses on one of those factors – when a property is restored – through the lens of biodiversity.

“What we see is that the past matters. History is important,” said Catano.

Working at a site that was once an active airstrip, the team converted 18 parcels back to prairie. Except for the beginning of the restoration, the researchers kept all restoration conditions as identical as possible.

They then tracked how different communities of organisms came together in those plots — for example, what types of plants grew and what other organisms they attracted. Beyond characterizing biodiversity, the team also analyzed how it affects the downstream ecological functions of a plot.

“This has been a big question in ecology for almost 30 years, to understand what consequences biodiversity has for the functioning of an ecosystem,” said Brudvig, who is also a core faculty member of the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program at EEB MSU.

Somewhat surprisingly, more biodiversity in the team’s experiment didn’t always result in a more functioning ecosystem.

There is plenty of evidence supporting a positive relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function, but many of these studies have been conducted in highly controlled settings, the team said. With their unique website designed specifically to explore the implications of the story, the team found that the relationship is more complex in a more natural setting.

“We’ve seen relationships that ranged from positive to neutral to negative,” Brudvig said. “In nature, the results are a huge mixed bag.”

Brudvig stressed that this work neither challenges the previous findings nor refutes the conclusion that more biodiversity is generally a good thing. In isolated cases, however, Brudvig’s team shows that biodiversity impacts are nuanced and complicated – they cannot be summed up in a single value or metric.

“There is no number for biodiversity that tells the whole story,” Catano said. “In this case, it was the identities of key species and their traits hidden behind numbers that are really important to how ecosystems function.”

By Matt Davenport

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