More ways of living on a bush than on a bluebell

Some years ago, a fascinating article in the National Geographic described the exceptional diversity of bat species to be found in Barro Colorado Island, Panama – incidentally where Ed Tanner is currently with some of his PhD students. Research by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and others had described 74 species, which managed to coexist by carving out distinct, often ingenious, niches. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/06/panama-bats/panama-bats-text. Some bats are physically adapted to hunt in open spaces, others in gaps and along edges, still others in the fine interstitial spaces of lower understorey layers. It is a dramatic example of how habitat structural complexity is related to, and helps promote, species richness.

We explore this relationship between habitat structure and species richness, and its relevance, in an article recently published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution. Building on an earlier review (Tews et al 2004, J. Biogeog 31:79-92) through an analysis of 199 papers published 2004-2013, we find that a positive relationship between habitat complexity or heterogeneity and animal species richness or diversity is found in over 75% of investigated cases, across different taxonomic groups and ecosystem types. It seems that Lawton (1978) was right when he observed: “There are more ways of living on a bush than on a bluebell”. Given this common pattern, and building on Coomes Group’s developing experience of using airborne lidar to study forests, we argue that this powerful vertical-profiling tool could be used to deliver habitat structural indicators of species richness over large spatial extents. More spatially and temporally precise information on species richness and habitat quality is increasingly important in responding to the unceasing loss of biodiversity across the planet, so we hope the article might contribute to developing new tools to meet this challenge.