A global survey of reef fishes shows that the consequences of biodiversity loss are greater than previously anticipated as ecosystem functioning remained unsaturated with the addition of new species. Additionally, reefs worldwide, particularly those most diverse, are highly vulnerable to human impacts that are widespread and likely to worsen due to ongoing coastal overpopulation.
Difficulties in scaling up theoretical and experimental results have raised controversy over the consequences of biodiversity loss for the functioning of natural ecosystems. Using a global survey of reef fish assemblages, we show that in contrast to previous theoretical and experimental studies, ecosystem functioning (as measured by standing biomass) scales in a non-saturating manner with biodiversity (as measured by species and functional richness) in this ecosystem. Our field study also shows a significant and negative interaction between human population density and biodiversity on ecosystem functioning (i.e., for the same human density there were larger reductions in standing biomass at more diverse reefs). Human effects were found to be related to fishing, coastal development, and land use stressors, and currently affect over 75% of the world's coral reefs. Our results indicate that the consequences of biodiversity loss in coral reefs have been considerably underestimated based on existing knowledge and that reef fish assemblages, particularly the most diverse, are greatly vulnerable to the expansion and intensity of anthropogenic stressors in coastal areas.
The increasing intensity of human disturbance worldwide is triggering unprecedented biodiversity losses, which is raising concerns over whether ecosystems will work and continue delivering goods and services to humanity. In contrast to previous experimental studies, which describe saturating relationships between ecosystem functioning and biodiversity, we show that in reef fish systems, functioning (as standing biomass) accelerates with the addition of new species. This non-saturating relationship implies unique contributions of species to the functioning of this ecosystem and indicates that the consequences of losing biodiversity are significantly greater than previously anticipated. We also demonstrate a negative effect of human density on reef fish functioning such that for the same number of people the loss of standing biomass is significantly larger in more diverse ecosystems. Unfortunately, human effects can arise through multiple stressors (such as fishing, coastal development, and land use) and are widespread and likely to worsen, as some 75% of the world's coral reefs are currently nearby human settlements and because almost all countries with coral reefs are expected to double their populations within the next 50 to 100 years. Our results call for both further investigation of the impact of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning and strategies to manage and prevent the increasing intensity and expansion of anthropogenic stressors in coastal areas.