Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Ecological economics


Global declines in insects have sparked wide interest among scientists, politicians, and the general public. Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. Our understanding of the extent and underlying causes of this decline is based on the abundance of single species or taxonomic groups only, rather than changes in insect biomass which is more relevant for ecological functioning. Here, we used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Insect, Ecology, Crustacean, Ecosystem, Taxonomic rank, Ant, Ecological economics


An understanding of risks to biodiversity is needed for planning action to slow current rates of decline and secure ecosystem services for future human use. Although the IUCN Red List criteria provide an effective assessment protocol for species, a standard global assessment of risks to higher levels of biodiversity is currently limited. In 2008, IUCN initiated development of risk assessment criteria to support a global Red List of ecosystems. We present a new conceptual model for ecosystem risk assessment founded on a synthesis of relevant ecological theories. To support the model, we review key elements of ecosystem definition and introduce the concept of ecosystem collapse, an analogue of species extinction. The model identifies four distributional and functional symptoms of ecosystem risk as a basis for assessment criteria: A) rates of decline in ecosystem distribution; B) restricted distributions with continuing declines or threats; C) rates of environmental (abiotic) degradation; and D) rates of disruption to biotic processes. A fifth criterion, E) quantitative estimates of the risk of ecosystem collapse, enables integrated assessment of multiple processes and provides a conceptual anchor for the other criteria. We present the theoretical rationale for the construction and interpretation of each criterion. The assessment protocol and threat categories mirror those of the IUCN Red List of species. A trial of the protocol on terrestrial, subterranean, freshwater and marine ecosystems from around the world shows that its concepts are workable and its outcomes are robust, that required data are available, and that results are consistent with assessments carried out by local experts and authorities. The new protocol provides a consistent, practical and theoretically grounded framework for establishing a systematic Red List of the world’s ecosystems. This will complement the Red List of species and strengthen global capacity to report on and monitor the status of biodiversity.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Plant, Ecology, Ecosystem, Endangered species, Extinction, Ecological economics, IUCN Red List


Punishment offers a powerful mechanism for the maintenance of cooperation in human and animal societies, but the maintenance of costly punishment itself remains problematic. Game theory has shown that corruption, where punishers can defect without being punished themselves, may sustain cooperation. However, in many human societies and some insect ones, high levels of cooperation coexist with low levels of corruption, and such societies show greater wellbeing than societies with high corruption. Here we show that small payments from cooperators to punishers can destabilize corrupt societies and lead to the spread of punishment without corruption (righteousness). Righteousness can prevail even in the face of persistent power inequalities. The resultant righteous societies are highly stable and have higher wellbeing than corrupt ones. This result may help to explain the persistence of costly punishing behavior, and indicates that corruption is a sub-optimal tool for maintaining cooperation in human societies.

Concepts: Evolution, Sociology, Science, Religion, Political philosophy, Ecological economics


Most societies are economically dominated by a small elite, and similarly, natural communities are typically dominated by a small fraction of the species. Here we reveal a strong similarity between patterns of inequality in nature and society, hinting at fundamental unifying mechanisms. We show that chance alone will drive 1% or less of the community to dominate 50% of all resources in situations where gains and losses are multiplicative, as in returns on assets or growth rates of populations. Key mechanisms that counteract such hyperdominance include natural enemies in nature and wealth-equalizing institutions in society. However, historical research of European developments over the past millennium suggests that such institutions become ineffective in times of societal upscaling. A corollary is that in a globalizing world, wealth will inevitably be appropriated by a very small fraction of the population unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions emerge at the global level.

Concepts: Sociology, Science, Western culture, Society, Institution, Humanities, Ecological economics


Cloud cover can influence numerous important ecological processes, including reproduction, growth, survival, and behavior, yet our assessment of its importance at the appropriate spatial scales has remained remarkably limited. If captured over a large extent yet at sufficiently fine spatial grain, cloud cover dynamics may provide key information for delineating a variety of habitat types and predicting species distributions. Here, we develop new near-global, fine-grain (≈1 km) monthly cloud frequencies from 15 y of twice-daily Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite images that expose spatiotemporal cloud cover dynamics of previously undocumented global complexity. We demonstrate that cloud cover varies strongly in its geographic heterogeneity and that the direct, observation-based nature of cloud-derived metrics can improve predictions of habitats, ecosystem, and species distributions with reduced spatial autocorrelation compared to commonly used interpolated climate data. These findings support the fundamental role of remote sensing as an effective lens through which to understand and globally monitor the fine-grain spatial variability of key biodiversity and ecosystem properties.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Life, Ecology, Natural environment, Ecosystem, Nature, Remote sensing, Ecological economics


The argument that human society can decouple economic growth-defined as growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-from growth in environmental impacts is appealing. If such decoupling is possible, it means that GDP growth is a sustainable societal goal. Here we show that the decoupling concept can be interpreted using an easily understood model of economic growth and environmental impact. The simple model is compared to historical data and modelled projections to demonstrate that growth in GDP ultimately cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. We also note that GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. GDP growth is therefore a questionable societal goal. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing.

Concepts: Gross domestic product, Sustainability, Peak oil, Society, Economic growth, Ecological economics, Decoupling, Uneconomic growth


Ecological intensification has been promoted as a means to achieve environmentally sustainable increases in crop yields by enhancing ecosystem functions that regulate and support production. There is, however, little direct evidence of yield benefits from ecological intensification on commercial farms growing globally important foodstuffs (grains, oilseeds and pulses). We replicated two treatments removing 3 or 8% of land at the field edge from production to create wildlife habitat in 50-60 ha patches over a 900 ha commercial arable farm in central England, and compared these to a business as usual control (no land removed). In the control fields, crop yields were reduced by as much as 38% at the field edge. Habitat creation in these lower yielding areas led to increased yield in the cropped areas of the fields, and this positive effect became more pronounced over 6 years. As a consequence, yields at the field scale were maintained-and, indeed, enhanced for some crops-despite the loss of cropland for habitat creation. These results suggested that over a 5-year crop rotation, there would be no adverse impact on overall yield in terms of monetary value or nutritional energy. This study provides a clear demonstration that wildlife-friendly management which supports ecosystem services is compatible with, and can even increase, crop yields.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Sustainability, Yield, Farm, Ecological economics, Crop yield


Distributions of Earth’s species are changing at accelerating rates, increasingly driven by human-mediated climate change. Such changes are already altering the composition of ecological communities, but beyond conservation of natural systems, how and why does this matter? We review evidence that climate-driven species redistribution at regional to global scales affects ecosystem functioning, human well-being, and the dynamics of climate change itself. Production of natural resources required for food security, patterns of disease transmission, and processes of carbon sequestration are all altered by changes in species distribution. Consideration of these effects of biodiversity redistribution is critical yet lacking in most mitigation and adaptation strategies, including the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Life, Ecology, Natural environment, Ecosystem, Sustainability, Ecological economics


Sustainable Development Goal Three is rightly ambitious, but achieving it will require doing global health differently. Among other things, progressive civil society organisations will need to be recognised and supported as vital partners in achieving the necessary transformations. We argue, using illustrative examples, that a robust civil society can fulfill eight essential global health functions. These include producing compelling moral arguments for action, building coalitions beyond the health sector, introducing novel policy alternatives, enhancing the legitimacy of global health initiatives and institutions, strengthening systems for health, enhancing accountability systems, mitigating the commercial determinants of health and ensuring rights-based approaches. Given that civil society activism has catalyzed tremendous progress in global health, there is a need to invest in and support it as a global public good to ensure that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be realised.

Concepts: Sociology, Sustainability, Society, Civil society, Community building, Ecological economics, Voluntary association, Mass society


Human activities, especially conversion and degradation of habitats, are causing global biodiversity declines. How local ecological assemblages are responding is less clear–a concern given their importance for many ecosystem functions and services. We analysed a terrestrial assemblage database of unprecedented geographic and taxonomic coverage to quantify local biodiversity responses to land use and related changes. Here we show that in the worst-affected habitats, these pressures reduce within-sample species richness by an average of 76.5%, total abundance by 39.5% and rarefaction-based richness by 40.3%. We estimate that, globally, these pressures have already slightly reduced average within-sample richness (by 13.6%), total abundance (10.7%) and rarefaction-based richness (8.1%), with changes showing marked spatial variation. Rapid further losses are predicted under a business-as-usual land-use scenario; within-sample richness is projected to fall by a further 3.4% globally by 2100, with losses concentrated in biodiverse but economically poor countries. Strong mitigation can deliver much more positive biodiversity changes (up to a 1.9% average increase) that are less strongly related to countries' socioeconomic status.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Natural environment, Soil, Ecosystem, Natural resource, Sustainability, Ecological economics