Examining the relationship between ecosystem structure and function using structural equation modelling: A case study examining denitrification potential in restored wetland soils


Journal Article

An ongoing debate in ecology is the relationship between community or ecosystem structure and function. This relationship is particularly important in restored ecosystems because it is often assumed that restoring ecosystem structure will restore ecosystem functioning, but this assumption is frequently not tested. In this study, we used a novel application of structural equation modelling (SEM) to examine the relationship between ecosystem structure and function. To exemplify how to apply SEM to explore this relationship, we used a case study examining soil controls on denitrification potential (DNP) in two restored wetlands. Our objectives were to examine (1) whether both restored wetland soil ecosystems had similar relationships among soils variables (i.e. similar soil ecosystem structure) and (2) whether the soil variables driving denitrification potential (DNP) were similar at both sites (i.e. the soil ecosystems were functioning in a similar manner). Using the unique ability of SEM to test model structure, we proposed a SEM to represent the soil ecosystem and tested this structure with field data. We determined that the same model structure was supported by data from both systems suggesting that the two restored wetland systems had similar soil ecosystem structure. To test whether both ecosystems were functioning in a similar way, we examined the parameters of each model. We determined that the drivers of DNP function were not the same at both sites. Higher soil organic matter was the most important predictor of higher DNP at both sites. However, the other significant relationships among soils variables were different at each system indicating that the soils were not functioning in exactly the same way at each site. Overall, these results suggest that the restoration of ecosystem structure may not necessarily ensure the restoration of ecosystem functioning. In this study we capitalize on an inherent feature of SEM, the ability to test model structure, to test a fundamental ecological question. This novel approach is widely applicable to other systems and improves our understanding of the general relationship between ecosystem structure and function. © 2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Sutton-Grier, AE; Kenney, MA; Richardson, CJ

Published Date

  • March 10, 2010

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 221 / 5

Start / End Page

  • 761 - 768

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0304-3800

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2009.11.015

Citation Source

  • Scopus