A team of scientists has found that the biggest predictor of an ecosystem’s biodiversity is temperature. As temperatures increase, so does biodiversity—leading to a wider variety of plant and animal species. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Nature Communications.
Many of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet are also some of the warmest—tropical rainforests, coral reefs, and jungles. While ecologists have observed this pattern for a long time, scientists have yet to pinpoint the factors that make warm climates so much more hospitable to animals and plants. Another problem is the lack of solid research to back up the theory of temperature being connected to biodiversity. Previous studies had generally focused on a single type of organism, such as ferns or birds.
Researchers put the biodiversity theory to the test by studying the ecosystems of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The mountain is so tall that it contains a huge climatic gradient, allowing researchers to study the organisms present at various temperatures and elevations. There are warm savannas at the bottom while the top of the mountain is so cold that only a handful of plants can survive. The team collected data along an elevational stretch of over two miles. They measured biodiversity by identifying the unique species in each climate over a two year period.
The research team found that as the temperature increased, the biodiversity of that ecosystem increased. This was true throughout all of the studied sites on Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, the team strongly believes that the biggest predictor of an ecosystem’s biodiversity is temperature.
Warmer climates supported a larger number of animal and plant species though scientists still don’t have a perfect explanation for why this happens. The research team hopes that future studies will solve this ecological puzzle.
Peters et al. Predictors of elevational biodiversity gradients change from single taxa to the multi-taxa community level. Nature Communications (2016).