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Word Wednesday: Diversity and Resilience

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Join us on Wednesdays to uncover the meaning behind various terms and concepts important in ACER research. This week, let’s learn about diversity and resilience.

The primary goal of the ACER scientific research program is to investigate the role that diversity played in how nearshore coastal ecosystems responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More generally, ACER scientists anticipate their research giving us insight into how diversity affects the way ecosystems respond to any type of disturbance, such as hurricanes, hypoxia, or human impacts.

What is diversity? Diversity and the term biodiversity, often used synonymously, usually refer to the number of different kinds of living organisms (species) in a habitat or area. For some animals such as crabs or clams which appear different (morphologically distinct), it is relatively easy to separate and count the number of different species present. However, for other organisms, such as bacteria, it is difficult to recognize distinct species and special techniques are required. You may have heard scientists referring to genetic diversity. This is a measure of the number of unique genes in a species or in a sample. For species that do not appear different such as bacteria, scientists are turning to gene sequencing to determine the number of species present. We’ll talk more about gene sequencing in a later post. As scientists’ ability to sequence (genetically) organisms efficiently and inexpensively improves, we will likely see less of a distinction between these measures of diversity.

Currently scientists theorize that more diverse ecosystems are less sensitive to impacts from disturbances. The term for this ability to recover or bounce back from impacts is resilience. Thus, one of the key ideas or hypotheses that ACER scientists are investigating is that more diverse ecosystems are more resilient. It is thought that increased diversity allows the continuation of important processes such as photosynthesis and nutrient cycling, and less disruption to food webs when a few species are reduced in number or eliminated by the disturbance. In a diverse ecosystem, other species would be available to take their place and the functioning of the ecosystem would be relatively unchanged. ACER scientists are testing this idea by sampling a variety of organismal groups (from bacteria to sharks) at a series of locations that varied in their exposure to oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.