Positive Multifunctionality ≠ All Functions Are Positive
I was dismayed this morning to read Bradford et al.’s recently accepted paper Discontinuity in the responses of ecosystem processes and multifunctionality to altered soil
community composition in PNAS for several reasons.
The paper itself is really cool. They manipulated community complexity and nutrient conditions in the Ecotron, and then looked at five soil ecosystem functions. They then looked at whether complexity influenced multi functionality (as well as N), and found, indeed, it did! They went on and, as recommended in our paper on multifunctionality analyze single functions to understand what is driving that multifunctionality relationship, and then…
Then they fall off the boat completely.
They find that, while some functions were affected positively, some were not, and one more was affected negatively. They conclude, therefore, that multifunctionality metrics are not useful.
…multifunctionality indices may obscure insights into the mechanistic relationships required to understand and manage the influence of community change on ecosystem service provision.
The mismatch between our community and fertilization effects on multifunctionality and the individual processes, however, cautions against using the framework as a predictive tool for achieving desired levels of functioning for multiple, specified ecosystem services.
What is frustrating about this is that the authors completely miss what multifunctionality actually tells us.
I’m going to say this once very simply, and then in much more detail –
high multifunctionality ≠ every single function performing well
To quote from my own work, multifunctionality is “simultaneous performance of multiple functions.” No more, no less. A positive relationship between a driver and multifunctionality does not imply a positive relationship between that driver and every function being monitored. But rather that said driver will be able to increase the performance of more functions than are decreased.
Some More Detail
Indeed, in the example in Byrnes et al. 2014, we look at the data from the German BIODEPTH experiment. Some of the functions have a positive relationship with richness. Some do not. One has a trending negative relationship. But, put together, multifunctionality is a powerful concept that shows us that, if we are concerned with the simultaneous provision of multiple functions, then, yes, biodiversity enhances multifunctionality.
In our paper, we advise that researchers look at single functions – precisely because they are likely not all related to a driver in the same way. We state
The suite of metrics generated by the multiple threshold approach provide powerful information for analysing multifunctionality, especially when combined with analyses of the relationship between diversity and single functions.
We say this because, indeed, one has to ask – is the driver-MF relationship as strong as it could be? Why or why not? How can we pull the system apart into its component pieces to understand what is going on at the aggregate level?
The approaches are not in opposition, but rather utilizing both provides a much more rich picture of how a driver influences an ecosystem – both through an aggregate lens and a more fine-scale lens. The similarities and differences between them are informative, not discordant.
UPDATE: See comments from Mark and Steve below. This #2 would appear incorrect and a tale of crossed paths not scene. While I cannot find anything in my various inboxes regarding communication, it’s possible either a bad email address was used, or it went missing in my transition between nceas and umb. If this is the case, I’m in the wrong on this. An interesting quandry of how do we resolve these things outside of the literature, and worth pondering in this our modern age of email. I leave my comments below for the sake of completeness, and as there are still some ideas worth thinking about. But, wish that email hadn’t disappeared somewhere into the ether! Now the more my disappointment in technology!
Perhaps the bigger bummer is that, despite this being a big critique of the idea of multifunctionality that our group spent a *huge* amount of time trying to figure out how to quantify in a meaningful and useful way, as far as I know, none of us were contacted about this rebuttle. The experiment and analysis of the experiment is excellent, and it gets into some really cool stuff about soil biocomplexity and ecosystem multifunctionality. But the whole attacking multifunctionality as a useful concept thing?
That entire controversy could have been resolved with a brief email or two, tops. For this group to go so far off base is really kind of shocking, and dismaying.
Dismaying because the advice that would seem to stem from this paper is to go back to just looking at single functions individually and jettison the concept of multifunctionality (no other alternative is provided). That places us squarely back in 2003, with fragmented different types of analyses being used in an ad hoc manner without a unifying framework. Precisely what we were trying to avoid with our methods paper.
And all it would have taken to prevent is a little bit of communication.
Bradford, M. A., S. A. Wood, R. D. Bardgett, H. I. J. Black, M. Bonkowski, T. Eggers, S. J. Grayston, E. Kandeler, P. Manning, H. Setälä, and T. H. Jones. 2014. Discontinuity in the responses of ecosystem processes and multifunctionality to altered soil community composition. PNAS. link
Byrnes, J. E. K., L. Gamfeldt, F. Isbell, J. S. Lefcheck, J. N. Griffin, A. Hector, B. J. Cardinale, D. U. Hooper, L. E. Dee, and J. Emmett Duffy. 2014. Investigating the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem multifunctionality: challenges and solutions. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. 5: 111-124. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12143