Approximately 25 years ago, ecologists became increasingly interested in the question of whether ongoing biodiversity loss matters for the functioning of ecosystems. As such, a new ecological subfield on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning (BEF) was born. This subfield was initially dominated by theoretical studies and by experiments in which biodiversity was manipulated, and responses of ecosystem functions such as biomass production, decomposition rates, carbon sequestration, trophic interactions and pollination were assessed. More recently, an increasing number of studies have investigated BEF relationships in non‐manipulated ecosystems, but reviews synthesizing our knowledge on the importance of real‐world biodiversity are still largely missing.
I performed a systematic review in order to assess how biodiversity drives ecosystem functioning in both terrestrial and aquatic, naturally assembled communities, and on how important biodiversity is compared to other factors, including other aspects of community composition and abiotic conditions. The outcomes of 258 published studies, which reported 726 BEF relationships, revealed that in many cases, biodiversity promotes average biomass production and its temporal stability, and pollination success. For decomposition rates and ecosystem multifunctionality, positive effects of biodiversity outnumbered negative effects, but neutral relationships were even more common. Similarly, negative effects of prey biodiversity on pathogen and herbivore damage outnumbered positive effects, but were less common than neutral relationships. Finally, there was no evidence that biodiversity is related to soil carbon storage.
Most BEF studies focused on the effects of taxonomic diversity, however, metrics of functional diversity were generally stronger predictors of ecosystem functioning. Furthermore, in most studies, abiotic factors and functional composition (e.g. the presence of a certain functional group) were stronger drivers of ecosystem functioning than biodiversity per se. While experiments suggest that positive biodiversity effects become stronger at larger spatial scales, in naturally assembled communities this idea is too poorly studied to draw general conclusions.
In summary, a high biodiversity in naturally assembled communities positively drives various ecosystem functions. At the same time, the strength and direction of these effects vary highly among studies, and factors other than biodiversity can be even more important in driving ecosystem functioning. Thus, to promote those ecosystem functions that underpin human well‐being, conservation should not only promote biodiversity per se, but also the abiotic conditions favouring species with suitable trait combinations.