In a new study led by Lynette Loke, of Peter Todd’s lab, we explore the effects of habitat configuration on biodiversity in an experimental seawall system. It is a generally accepted ecological principle that a larger total area of habitat can support greater biodiversity; less certain is the effect of the spatial configuration of this habitat. This question is of general relevance for conservation in today’s increasingly fragmented landscapes. Although there has been much speculation on this topic, there have been few experimental studies at scales incorporating multiple discrete patches. Lynette sought to remedy this with her experimental system of concrete tiles placed on artificial seawalls (pictured below). The tiles can generally support more biodiversity than the unadorned seawalls and therefore constitute “habitat”. Colonising organisms include various species of snail, alga and polychaete worm.
We found that, as expected, seawalls with more tiles had higher biodiversity—the classic positive species–area result. More intriguingly, we found some evidence that biodiversity peaked at an intermediate level of tile clustering (e.g., middle panel below, where black=tile and white=no tile). We speculated that this could be because the relatively large inter-patch distances in the intermediate configuration make it hard for species to traverse the landscape, leading to greater differentiation in species composition in the separate patches over time.