What drives biodiversity patterns?

Jessie Woodbridge discusses research recently published in the Journal of Ecology: What drives biodiversity patterns? Using long-term multi-disciplinary data to discern centennial-scale change

Find out more about the research that reveals relationships between human population change, insect faunal group turnover, pollen diversity and climate trends through the Holocene.


Biodiversity plays an important role in ecosystem functioning and resilience to global environmental change. Environments with higher levels of biodiversity can recover faster following natural disasters and can be more productive. Long-term ecological records are used to explore biodiversity patterns and trends over centennial to multi-millennial time scales across broad regions. Fossil pollen, which reflects change in landscape diversity, fossil insects, palaeoclimate and population data inferred from archaeological sites, are used to address questions about the drivers and consequences of diversity change.

British landscape (Barton Meadows, Winchester) modified by long-term land use. Photo: Ruth Pelling.

Current understanding of environmental change is often focused on recent decades, which only represents a ‘snap-shot’ in time. Long-term multi-millennial scale environmental datasets have been under-utilized in research aiming to understand recent biodiversity trends. Such datasets can inform restoration ecology revealing ecological legacies and the influence of past human activities on shaping current biodiversity patterns.

Increases in population at the start of the British Neolithic (6000 before present) and Bronze Age (4200 before present) coincide with the loss of forests, increased agricultural activity, and changes in insect faunal groups to species associated with human land use. Pollen diversity increased most notably since the Bronze Age, as landscapes became more open and heterogeneous. The connections between population and palynological diversity become increasingly significant since around 3000 years ago, implying intensifying impacts of human activity overriding climatic effects. Early human societies contributed to shaping pollen and landscape diversity patterns over millennia within the context of broader climatic influences upon vegetation. However, patterns of palynological diversity trends are regionally variable and do not always follow expected trajectories. To fully understand the long-term drivers of biodiversity change, future research needs to focus on amalgamating diverse data types, along with multi-community efforts to harmonise data across broad regions.

British Isles: pollen-based vegetation cover and diversity, insect faunal group change and population trends inferred from archaeological sites over the last 10,000 years.

Jessie Woodbridge University of Plymouth, UK

You can read the full paper online: What drives biodiversity patterns? Using long-term multi-disciplinary data to discern centennial-scale change

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