The biodiversity-dependent ecosystem service debt

Forest Isbell, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, Michel Loreau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


Habitat destruction is driving biodiversity loss in remaining ecosystems, and ecosystem functioning and services often directly depend on biodiversity. Thus, biodiversity loss is likely creating an ecosystem service debt: a gradual loss of biodiversity-dependent benefits that people obtain from remaining fragments of natural ecosystems. Here, we develop an approach for quantifying ecosystem service debts, and illustrate its use to estimate how one anthropogenic driver, habitat destruction, could indirectly diminish one ecosystem service, carbon storage, by creating an extinction debt. We estimate that c. 2-21 Pg C could be gradually emitted globally in remaining ecosystem fragments because of plant species loss caused by nearby habitat destruction. The wide range for this estimate reflects substantial uncertainties in how many plant species will be lost, how much species loss will impact ecosystem functioning and whether plant species loss will decrease soil carbon. Our exploratory analysis suggests that biodiversity-dependent ecosystem service debts can be globally substantial, even when locally small, if they occur diffusely across vast areas of remaining ecosystems. There is substantial value in conserving not only the quantity (area), but also the quality (biodiversity) of natural ecosystems for the sustainable provision of ecosystem services.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-134
Number of pages16
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015


  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Biodiversity-ecosystem functioning relationships
  • Carbon storage and sequestration
  • Ecological production function
  • Economic valuation
  • Extinction debt
  • Global ecoregions
  • Habitat destruction
  • Natural capital
  • Social cost of carbon

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

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