The Appearance of Diversity: Do Damaged Wetlands Really Bounce Back?

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A damaged wetland can seem diverse – but is it? Image Credit: hemogenes

Biodiversity is a tricky thing. You can walk into a place and feel like you’re in a beautifully diverse landscape, full of a vast array of life. Stand in a marsh, and you’ll feel surrounded by waving reeds and bird song. However, if this marshland ecosystem has been damaged by development, cut off from the water that replenishes it, then chances are that you’re standing in an environment that’s a lot less rich than it was a hundred years ago.

The Doubtful Wisdom of Wetland Management

Wetlands are often in the way of development. When they are in the way, they may be considered expendable, or rather, replaceable. For years, people have been swapping wetland habitats. A wetland is damaged in one area, but more wetlands are constructed in another. The total amount of wetland is the same, or perhaps it even increases. On the surface, this sounds like a good plan, one that is sensible for both human development and wetland environments.

However, a recent study by David Moreno-Mateos of the University of California Berkeley reveals that the appearance of biodiversity can deceive us. In an analysis of over 100 studies of wetland environments, Moreno-Mateos compared the diversity of intact wetland environments with environments that had been degraded and had then recovered over time. He found that while recovered wetlands may seem to be diverse and thriving, an analysis of the literature reveals that these wetlands are much less diverse than their intact counterparts.

What’s missing in these wetlands? This depends entirely on the wetland. In an interview with Decoded Science, Moreno-Mateos stated that the losses run across the entire spectrum of wetland life. The missing species “range from trees to shrubs, from mangroves to moss.” Removing keystone species like a particular tree can shift the species assemblage and biodiversity of the entire ecosystem.

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