U of M researcher who established the value of biodiversity wins international award
Regents Professor David Tilman has received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Ecology and Conservation Biology. The award spotlights his role in developing the scientific case for conserving the planet’s biodiversity. Tilman was the first to establish the value of biodiversity by quantifying how it makes ecosystems more productive, resilient and stable. His groundbreaking findings were written up in one of the most cited papers in modern ecology, published in Nature in 1994.
Reflecting on his findings, Tilman notes: “They were a real surprise, because until then everyone thought that ecosystem functioning was controlled by a few dominant species, and the rest didn’t matter. Our discovery that less diverse systems were also less stable sparked a major discussion, with many saying that our work must be flawed.” In response, Tilman set up the world’s first biodiversity experiment in the field at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in order to collect the data to resolve the debate.
Tilman, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 1976. He has served as director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a Long-Term Ecological Research site, since 1992. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and holds a University McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Ecology. In 2008, Tilman received the International Prize for Biology from the Emperor of Japan. He also received the Heineken Prize for Environmental Science in 2010 and the Balzan Prize in 2014.
“We are living in a time when humans are taking high-diversity natural systems and making them very simple, with very low diversity,” says Tilman. “Our work has shown that this severe decline has significant long-term impacts on the quality of these ecosystems and how they function, which mean they can no longer provide us with the services we want from them, such as clean water or the storage of carbon.”
The BBVA Foundation established its Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in 2008 to recognize individuals who make outstanding contributions and radical advances in a broad range of scientific and technological areas. Past recipients of the award in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category include Peter Reich, University of Minnesota; Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University; and Paul R. Ehrlich, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. An awards ceremony will be held June 23 at the BBVA Foundation headquarters in Madrid, Spain.