This paper presents global research trends involving highly cited articles on ecosystem services from 1981 to 2017 based on a bibliometric analysis of such articles from the SCI-E and SSCI databases of the Web of Science. The analysis revealed that there were 132 highly cited articles, most of which were published between 2005 and 2014. Based on author keywords, the term ecosystem services was strongly linked to biodiversity. The top three journals in terms of total number of highly cited articles published were Ecological Economics, PNAS, and Ecological Indicators. Despite ranking sixth overall, Science ranked first in both impact factor and total citations per article. The US, UK, Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden were the top five most productive and cooperative countries in the world based on total number of highly cited articles and co-authorship network, respectively. The US was highly connected to Canada, the Netherlands, China and the UK. Stockholm University and Stanford University were the most productive institutions in Europe and North America, respectively. Stanford University is associated with many scholars in the field of ecosystem services research because of the InVEST model. Robert Costanza was the most prolific and highly cited author, the latter being largely due to the first valuation of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital, he and his co-authors published in 1997 in Nature. Terrestrial, urban, and forest ecosystems were the top types of ecosystems assessed. Regulating and provisioning services were the major ecosystem services studied. Quantitative and qualitative assessments were the main research focus. Most of these highly cited studies on ecosystem services are done on areas geographically located in North America and Europe.