Fast Breaking Paper Highlights the Evolution of the Functional Diversity Approach for Animal Communities

Recently, the article “Functional identity and diversity of animals predict ecosystem functioning better than species-based indices” (Gagic V, et al., Proc. Roy. Soc. B 282 [1801]: Article No. UNSP 20142620, February 22 2015), was named a Fast-Breaking Paper for Plant & Animal Science in Essential Science Indicators. Currently in the Web of Science, this paper has 51 citations.

Below, two of the paper’s authors, Dr. Ignasi Bartomeus and Dr. Vesna Gagic, discuss the significance of their work for their field.


Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

I think researchers cite us because we provide solid evidence that the functional diversity concept works with empirical data in a wide range of animal communities. While there is a good theoretical basis supporting that the use of functional diversity (the diversity of species functional traits in an ecological community) should outperform metrics based on species richness for predicting ecosystem functioning, empirical support for animal provided functions was lacking. There is a rising interest in using a functional approach to understanding ecological processes and our paper validates one of the principal assumptions of this approach.

Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

We mainly tested and refined existing methodology for a wide range of situations; hence our paper falls in between methodological advance and synthesis of knowledge.

Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman’s terms? 

In this paper, we conducted a broad test of the performance of functional diversity metrics. The basic idea is that an insect community composed of very different species will be better at doing functions like pollination or pest control than a community where all the species “look” similar. We provide the first solid evidence that the functional diversity of communities can better explain functioning of a wide range of below- and above-ground animal communities in comparison to traditionally used indices based just on numbers of species and individuals. Interestingly, we point out that there are specific traits, which matter the most for specific functions. For example, having communities dominated by species with big body size increased pest control.

How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you’ve encountered along the way?

This paper started as a side project. We were reading several papers using functional diversity metrics assuming it was a good proxy of ecosystem functioning, but none validated this idea for animal communities. From this frustration, we decided to gather the data ourselves and test it, so it was very fun to contact people working on different systems to make a broad analysis. Just compiling all datasets was a quite daunting task, and assembling all available methods and coding them in easy-to-use scripts was also more work than expected, so soon turned into a full-time work for Vesna and me, but it was fun to do.

Where do you see your research leading in the future?

Well, while we show functional diversity is a better predictor of ecosystem function than species richness, it is still an inaccurate predictor, and so much more work is needed to understand the link between species traits and their effects on the ecosystem. In particular, experimental evidence for the links between individual animal traits other than body size and functions performed is still largely lacking. I am particularly interested in understanding this link in the context of human-induced rapid environmental change.

Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

Not directly, but more applied research building in our methods can have an impact in biodiversity conservation practices. For example, we just showed that for assessing grassland restoration, a functional diversity approach helps to design the right management.

Dr. Ignasi Bartomeus

Dpto. Ecología Integrativa
Estación Biológica de Doñana (EBD-CSIC)
Sevilla, Spain


Dr. Vesna Gagic

Postdoctoral researcher
CSIRO Agriculture
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia