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Study challenges ecology's 'Field of Dreams' hypothesis

Restoring animal habitat requires much more than just the right plants

bison at Nachusa Grasslands

To restore habitat, management strategies proved stronger than the effects of plant biodiversity.


February 10, 2021

If you build it, they might not come. That's the key finding of a new study on habitat restoration practices that challenges a commonly accepted principle in ecology.

The U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study tested the "Field of Dreams" hypothesis, which predicts that restoring plant biodiversity will lead to recovery of animal biodiversity. The prediction, which often guides restoration practices, is infrequently tested because restoration studies typically measure plant or animal biodiversity, but rarely both, said lead author Pete Guiden of Northern Illinois University.

Guiden and colleagues studied 17 research plots of restored tallgrass prairie, measuring biodiversity in four animal communities -- snakes, small mammals, ground beetles and dung beetles. "We wanted to know if the most diverse animal communities were found in the most diverse plant communities, or if something else is responsible for patterns of animal biodiversity," he said.

While the scientists did find some positive connections between plant and animal biodiversity, the gains weren't nearly as strong as benefits derived from implementation of restoration management strategies.

"We found that the effects of management strategies like controlled burns and bison reintroduction on animal communities were six times stronger on average than the effects of plant biodiversity," Guiden said.

"The most important effects of restoration on animal biodiversity had little to do with plant community biodiversity," he added. "Management practices focused on restoring plants might be insufficient to also restore animals."

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The results were a surprise to the co-authors, who had predicted that plant biodiversity would have stronger effects on animal biodiversity than management strategies.

"Through their modeling approach, these researchers were better able to understand the factors that lead to shifts in animal diversity, potentially informing how restoration practitioners implement treatments in the field," said Betsy von Holle, a program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

--  NSF Public Affairs, researchnews@nsf.gov