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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee biologist has discovered new clues to the complex riddle of species distribution.

Tadashi Fukami, a graduate assistant in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, is co-author of a paper on biodiversity published in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Fukami and Peter Morin of Rutgers University found that the history of how organisms assemble into communities is a vital link in understanding ecosystem diversity.

“We wanted to explore the relationship between what ecologists call productivity, or the amount of light, rainfall and nutrients an ecosystem receives, and diversity,” Fukami said.

Using spring water doped with known amounts of nutrients, the pair developed a community of microbes that included bacteria, microflagellates and algae. The researchers then added 18 different species of animal organisms, including various protozoa and rotifers. They developed four different sequences for adding the microscopic animals to the mix and then looked at the resulting ecological communities after 18 and 25 days.

The order in which the animal organisms were introduced into the microbial samples created striking differences in how the diversity of the resulting ecological communities are related to the amount of nutrients added in the water, Fukami said.

“We found that the order in which different plant and animal communities originally assembled is an important predictor of future biodiversity.

“This is important information for environmental scientists and ecologists who are working to conserve and manage natural ecosystems.-

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Fukami will receive his Ph.D. in August and will continue his research in New Zealand.