Common plants and pollinators act as anchors for ecosystems

Common plants and pollinators play a central role in maintaining biodiversity, acting as anchors for ecosystems, and assisting against some of the impacts of climate change.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder indicates that generalist plants and pollinators, such as bumblebees, house flies or yarrow weeds play a significant role in ecosystems.

The team’s findings were published this month in Ecology, and offer important insights for prioritising the conservation of species that contribute to the strength of ecosystems.

“A lot of times, conservation efforts are geared toward things that are rare. But oftentimes, species that are common are also in decline and could go extinct, and that could have really big repercussions for maintaining biodiversity,” commented Julian Resasco, lead author on the study and assistant professor of ecology.

A “generalist” refers to a species that interacts with a lot of other species. For example: a bee that visits many different species of flowers, or conversely, a flower that is visited by many species of bees and other pollinators, explained Resasco.

Ecologists have been studying networks of interactions between plants and pollinators, and previous research has indicated that generalists can be found time and time again within and across landscapes, and during warm seasons or over several years.

This study builds on previous research, discovering that within seasons, over the span of many years and across the landscape, generalists can persist and act as anchors for their ecological communities.

Having a thriving and healthy populations of generalists is beneficial to support a robust community of plants and pollinators that are less susceptible to local extinctions. This robustness may also be important for buffering against increasing unequal shifts in the seasonal timing of species interaction due to climate change, known as phenological mismatch.

For the past six years, Resasco has returned to the same meadow – near the Colorado University Boulder Mountain Research Station – in different seasons to observe bumblebees, flies, and beetles as they navigate between different flowers. He has recorded 267 different species of pollinators that visited 41 species of plants; he also found a very encouraging number of generalists.

These findings show that common plants and pollinators could be vital to help ecosystems weather current and future environmental change.

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