Ecosystem Functioning

  • Scientist with tree seedling in forest plot

    Research technician Jamie Smith inspects a seedling in BiodiversiTree.

What makes an ecosystem tick? Understanding how ecosystems function is critical to ensuring they can still provide the same ecosystem services to humans: protecting homes from floods, filtering pollution, or providing habitat for fish, crabs and other wildlife. SERC researchers use two approaches to determine how an ecosystem behaves: the zoomed-in field of functional ecology and the big-picture field of ecosystem function.

Functional ecology investigates the different roles species play in their environments. It zeroes in on species traits—the special features or abilities that set species apart. For example, many plants have evolved defensive traits to protect them from hungry insects or deer. Nicotine in tobacco, caffeine in coffee, or the sharp spines on holly leaves all can help a plant avoid being eaten. As another example, black mangroves can tolerate colder weather than red or white mangroves, so they are able to advance farther north along the east coast of the U.S. Functional ecology looks at the different niches species carve out for themselves in their environments and how those niches can change over time. Some species have such a large imprint on the way their ecosystems operate that scientists refer to them as ecosystem engineers!

Using a more birds-eye view, ecosystem function looks at the combination of all processes in an ecosystem and how they work together. Ecosystem functions include not just individual species, but all the biological and physical interactions that occur in an environment.

Diversity forms one of the biggest questions for SERC researchers. Are species more likely to survive in a diverse system, or surrounded by their own kind? Species that are functionally different—like insects that eat different kinds of plants—can complement each other and co-exist. Species that are functionally equivalent—that do essentially the same thing—are more likely to be rivals. On the human side, does diversity help an ecosystem better perform other processes we rely on?

Both functional ecology and ecosystem function are at the heart of BiodiversiTree, a hundred-year forest experiment SERC scientists began in 2012 on 13 hectares of former cropland. Browse the list below to learn about this and other SERC projects on ecosystem functioning.

Research Projects