The effect of aquatic plant species richness on wetland ecosystem processes

Katharina A.M. Engelhardt, Mark E. Ritchie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

128 Scopus citations


Rapid environmental changes have fostered debates and motivated research on how to effectively preserve or restore ecosystem processes. One such debate deals with the effects of biodiversity, and the loss thereof, on ecosystem processes. Recent studies demonstrate that resource-use complementarity, now known as the "niche-differentiation effect," and the presence of a competitive species with strong effects on ecosystem processes, now known as the "sampling effect," can explain why productivity and nutrient retention are sometimes enhanced with increasing species richness. In a well-replicated outdoor mesocosm experiment, we tested these and other alternative mechanisms that could explain the effects of submersed aquatic plant (macrophyte) diversity on wetland ecosystem processes. Algal biomass increased and phosphorus loss decreased as species richness increased. This result can best be explained by an indirect sampling effect caused by one of the weakest competitors, which appeared to facilitate algal growth and thereby filtering of particles, and thus phosphorus, from the water column. The dominant competitor also appeared to decrease phosphorus loss through direct effects on phosphorus availability in the soil and water. Thus, the effects by one of the weakest and the most dominant competitors combine to produce a diversity effect on phosphorus loss. Macrophyte biomass was not enhanced, but converged toward the intermediate biomass of the most competitive species. Such an "inverse sampling effect" may be produced when the most competitive species is not the most productive species owing to species-specific feedbacks and adaptations to the wetland environment. In summary, we reject the niche-differentiation effect as the dominant mechanism in our macrophyte communities and expand on the role of sampling effects in explaining the relationship between plant communities and ecosystem processes. In particular, indirect and inverse sampling effects combine to drive the relationship between species richness and wetland ecosystem processes. Thus, we demonstrate that plant diversity may affect wetland ecosystem processes when inferior competitors drive system productivity and nutrient retention. To ensure coexistence of such species with superior competitors, wetland systems may need to be maintained in a nonequilibrium state, such as with hydrologic disturbances, which would maintain both higher diversity and enhance ecosystem functioning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2911-2924
Number of pages14
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2002


  • Algal colonization
  • Competitive ability
  • Diversity
  • Ecosystem functioning
  • Indirect sampling effect
  • Inverse sampling effect
  • Nutrient retention
  • Productivity
  • Sampling effect
  • Submersed aquatic macrophytes
  • Wetland

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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