Taxonomic distinctness and environmental assessment.

Published online
20 Jan 1999
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Warwick, R. M. & Clarke, K. R.

Publication language
UK & Chile


The objectives of this paper were to test the performance of the taxonomic distinctness index, Δ+, in a number of environmental impact scenarios, to examine its relationship with functional diversity and to examine the influence of habitat type and diversity on the index. The index was applied to data on free-living marine nematodes from the coasts of Britain and Chile. The taxonomic distinctness of nematodes from environmentally degraded locations was generally reduced in comparison with that of more pristine locations, often significantly so. Some habitat types may have naturally lower values of taxonomic distinctness than others. However, unless the habitats are degraded in some way the Δ+ values do not generally fall below the lower 95% confidence limit of the simulated distribution under a null hypothesis that the assemblages behave as if they are a random selection from the regional species pool. This ameliorates the problem encountered with species richness measures of biodiversity, which are much more strongly affected by habitat type and complexity, thus making comparisons difficult between data sets from different habitats or where habitat type is uncontrolled. Taxonomic distinctness in marine nematodes is shown to be related to trophic diversity: a reduction in trophic diversity will lead to a reduction in taxonomic distinctness, although not necessarily to a reduction in species richness. Trophic composition itself is clearly affected by pollution, but is also strongly responsive to the major influence of habitat type. These features of the taxonomic distinctness index, coupled with its lack of dependence on sampling effort or differences in taxonomic rigour between workers and a statistical framework for the assessment of the significance of departure from expectation, suggested that it may prove to be a biologically and ecologically relevant measure of biodiversity. This paper demonstrated that the taxonomic distinctness index has a number of theoretical and logistical advantages over measures of species richness for the purposes of environmental assessment.

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