Big roles of small natural features

OwlsEcologists and conservationists have long recognized that keystone species have major ecological importance disproportionate to their abundance or size. Think beavers, sea stars and prairie dogs — species that keep an ecosystem balanced.

Similarly across landscapes, the keystone concept of disproportionate importance extends to other ecological elements, such as salt marshes in estuaries.

Now an international group of researchers is exploring the disproportionate ecological importance of small natural features — unique environmental elements that provide significant ecological and economic impacts.

Desert springs. Caves harboring bat colonies. Rocky outcrops. Strips of natural vegetation edging agricultural fields. Riparian zones. Small coral heads. Tiny islands. Large old trees.

These small natural features are often overlooked, relatively vulnerable yet environmentally mighty in their ecosystem. They also are at the opposite end of the spatial scale from the Earth’s large conservation superstars — the Serengeti, Yellowstone and the Great Barrier Reef.

Small natural features have big ecological roles, according to the 37 researchers from 11 countries writing in a special issue of Biological Conservation. Sometimes they can provide resources that limit key populations or processes that influence a much larger area. Sometimes they support unusual diversity, abundance or productivity.

They also are small enough to efficiently maintain or restore, while traditional land-use activities, such as forestry, fishing and grazing, continue in close proximity.

“Small natural features are an example of what can be termed ‘The Frodo Effect,’” writes Malcolm Hunter, University of Maine professor of wildlife resources and Libra Professor of Conservation Biology, in the introduction to the issue.

“In The Lord of the Rings, the small and unassuming hobbit Frodo has more strength than any of his larger peers and saves Middle Earth with his brave actions,” says Hunter. “Gandalf and the rest of the fellowship of the ring go to great ends to protect him, because they know this.”

Recognition and management of small natural features can be an effective way to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services. Malcolm Hunter