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Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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Proposed links between biodiversity and ecosystem processes have generated intense interest and controversy in recent years. With few exceptions, however, empirical studies have focused on grassland plants and laboratory aquatic microbial systems, whereas there has been little attention to how changing animal diversity may influence ecosystem processes. Meanwhile, a separate research tradition has demonstrated strong top‐down forcing in many systems, but has considered the role of diversity in these processes only tangentially. Integration of these research directions is necessary for more complete understanding in both areas. Several considerations suggest that changing diversity in multi‐level food webs can have important ecosystem effects that can be qualitatively different than those mediated by plants. First, extinctions tend to be biased by trophic level: higher‐level consumers are less diverse, less abundant, and under stronger anthropogenic pressure on average than wild plants, and thus face greater risk of extinction. Second, unlike plants, consumers often have impacts on ecosystems disproportionate to their abundance. Thus, an early consequence of declining diversity will often be skewed trophic structure, potentially reducing top‐down influence. Third, where predators remain abundant, declining diversity at lower trophic levels may change effectiveness of predation and penetrance of trophic cascades by reducing trait diversity and the potential for compensation among species within a level. The mostly indirect evidence available provides some support for this prediction. Yet effects of changing animal diversity on functional processes have rarely been tested experimentally. Evaluating impacts of biodiversity loss on ecosystem function requires expanding the scope of current experimental research to multi‐level food webs. A central challenge to doing so, and to evaluating the importance of trophic cascades specifically, is understanding the distribution of interaction strengths within natural communities and how they change with community composition. Although topology of most real food webs is extremely complex, it is not at all clear how much of this complexity translates to strong dynamic linkages that influence aggregate biomass and community composition. Finally, there is a need for more detailed data on patterns of species loss from real ecosystems (community “disassembly” rules).