How the decline in pollinators ripples across entire ecosystems

Written by
Liana Wait for High Meadows Environmental Institute
Aug. 9, 2022

As pollinators like honeybees and butterflies decline worldwide, their loss is rippling out across entire ecosystems, a Princeton-led team of researchers reports in the journal Nature. They found that when plants have to compete to woo pollinators, it poses a significant threat to biodiversity.

“Our study identifies an unexpected and insidious way in which the loss of some species in an ecological network can trigger the loss of still others,” said senior author Jonathan Levine, chair of Princeton's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “It suggests that ongoing pollinator decline may unravel the very fabric that keeps plant diversity stable.” 

He and his colleagues found that a reduced number and variety of pollinators changes the competitive playing field in favor of plants that are better at competing for pollinators. This in turn can negatively affect the organisms that depend on whatever plants are lost. These ripple effects could be devastating for ecosystem health.

“It’s a bit of a cautionary tale that pollinator decline may have severe consequences for plants,” said first author Christopher Johnson, now a research scientist at the University of Basel. “We really should be focused on conserving pollinator diversity.” 

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