Phylogenetic diversity and the functioning of ecosystems

Ecol Lett. 2012 Jul;15(7):637-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01795.x. Epub 2012 May 15.


Phylogenetic diversity (PD) describes the total amount of phylogenetic distance among species in a community. Although there has been substantial research on the factors that determine community PD, exploration of the consequences of PD for ecosystem functioning is just beginning. We argue that PD may be useful in predicting ecosystem functions in a range of communities, from single-trophic to complex networks. Many traits show a phylogenetic signal, suggesting that PD can estimate the functional trait space of a community, and thus ecosystem functioning. Phylogeny also determines interactions among species, and so could help predict how extinctions cascade through ecological networks and thus impact ecosystem functions. Although the initial evidence available suggests patterns consistent with these predictions, we caution that the utility of PD depends critically on the strength of phylogenetic signals to both traits and interactions. We advocate for a synthetic approach that incorporates a deeper understanding of how traits and interactions are shaped by evolution, and outline key areas for future research. If these complexities can be incorporated into future studies, relationships between PD and ecosystem function bear promise in conceptually unifying evolutionary biology with ecosystem ecology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity*
  • Food Chain
  • Phylogeny*