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Ecosystem Functions

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     ecosystem functions are the biological, geochemical and physical processes and components
     that take place or occur within an ecosystem

'Ecosystem function' is the technical term used in the Framework to define the biological, geochemical and physical processes and components that take place or occur within an ecosystem. Or more simply put, ecosystem functions relate to the structural components of an ecosystem (e.g. vegetation, water, soil, atmosphere and biota) and how they interact with each other, within ecosystems and across  ecosystems. Sometimes, ecosystem functions are called ecological processes.

Maintaining ecosystem function is important to maintaining the capacity of the region to supply ecosystem servcies. In the Framework, ecosystem functions are recognised as important for maintaining ecosystems and biodiversity (the diversity of genes, species and ecosystems) for their own sake. As well, they may provide contributions to goods and services (ecosystem services) that people value. People value ecosystem services in terms of the benefits they provide to their life. For example, the ecosystem function 'pollination' is critical to the reproduction of most wild plants. As well, this ecosystem function provides direct contributions to our agricultural sector by pollinating food crops. Our ability to grow food crops, are of value to people because they physically sustain us (contribute to nutrition) and allow us to choose our own lifestyle (social and economic freedom).

Nineteen (19) ecosystem functions have been listed and described for the purposes of the Framework, providing a detailed inventory of the structural components and processes occurring in and across the ecosystems of SEQ. Maps showing areas where each of the 19 ecosystem functions are being performed in the SEQ region have been developed. These maps are provided on the individual function pages. The map to the right, 'Total Ecosystem Function', overlays all 19 maps to show us where the least and most amount of function is being performed. The list of data sets applied to develop the ecosystem function maps and a description of the mapping process is located in the Quick Index.

According to the Framework, those areas with high ecosystem function have the potential to contribute to a wide range of ecosystem services. This is not to say however that those areas showing few ecosystem functions are not important, they may provide important contributions to specific ecosystem services, or they may be important areas for rehabilitation.  In the Framework, the 19 ecosystem functions have been grouped into 4 categories based on their functional role. These 4 categories are listed in Table 1 along with a description.


Table 1: Ecosystem Function Categories and descriptions.

Ecosystem Function Category Description 
Regulating Functions Maintenance of essential ecological processes and life support systems.
Supporting Functions Providing habitat (suitable living space) for wild plant and animal species at local and regional scales.
Provisioning Functions Provision of natural resources.
Cultural Functions Providing life fulfilment opportunities and cognitive development through exposure to life processes and natural systems.


All 19 ecosystem functions are presented in Table 2. The 19 ecosystem functions are grouped under their relevant Ecosystem Function Category and a description of the individual function is also provided. By clicking on the name of any ecosystem function, more information can be obtained including: how that ecosystem function contributes to ecosystem service provision, a map showing where the ecosystem function is being performed in the SEQ region, information on how we might know if we are degrading, maintaining or improving this ecosystem function, and details on how we currently manage this ecosystem function in SEQ.  


Table 2: List and descriptions of ecosystem functions.

Ecosystem Function Category
Ecosystem Function
Regulating Functions Gas Regulation Relates to the influence of natural and managed systems in relation to biogeochemical processes including greenhouse gases, photo-chemical smog and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Climate Regulation Influence of land cover and biological mediated processes that regulate atmospheric processes and weather patterns which in turn create the microclimate in which different plants and animals (including humans) live and function.
Disturbance Regulation The capacity of the soil, regolith and vegetation to buffer the effects of wind, water and waves through water and energy storage capacity and surface resistance.
Water Regulation The influence of land cover, topography, soils, hydrological conditions in the spatial and temporal distribution of water through atmosphere, soils, aquifers, rivers, lakes and wetlands.
Soil Retention Minimising soil loss through having adequate vegetation cover, root biomass, retaining rocks and soil biota.
Nutrient Regulation The role of ecosystems in the transport, storage and recycling of nutrients.
Waste Treatment and Assimilation The extent to which ecosystems are able to transport, store and recycle certain excesses of organic and inorganic wastes through distribution, assimilation, transport and chemical recomposition.
Pollination Pollination is the interaction between plants and (1) biotic vectors (e.g. insects, birds and mammals) and (2) abiotoic vectors (e.g. wind and water) in the movement of male gametes for plant production. Pollination and seed dispersal are linked.
Biological Control The interactions within biotic communities that act as restraining forces to control populations of potential pests and disease vectors. This function consists of natural and biological control mechanisms.
Barrier Effect of Vegetation Vegetation impedes the movement of airborne substances such as dust and aerosols (including agricultural chemicals and industrial and transport emissions), enhances air mixing and mitigates noise.
Supporting Functions Supporting Habitats Preservation of natural and semi natural ecosystems as suitable living space for wild biotic communities and individual species. This function also includes the provision of suitable breeding, reproduction, nursery, refugia and corridors (connectivity) for species.
Soil Formation Soil formation is the facilitation of soil formation processes. Soil formation processes include the chemical weathering of rocks and the transportation and accumulation of inorganic and organic matter.
Provisioning Functions Food Biomass that sustains living organisms. Material that can be converted to provide energy and nutrition. Mostly initially derived from photosynthesis.
Raw Materials Biomass that is used by species for any purpose other than food.
Water Supply The role of ecosystems in providing water through sediment trapping, infiltration, dissolution, precipitation and diffusion.
Genetic Resources Self maintaining diversity of organisms developed over evolutionary time (capable of continuing to change). Measurable at species, molecular and sub molecular levels.
Provision of Shade and Shelter Relates to vegetation that ameliorates extremes in weather and climate at a local landscape scale. Shade or shelter is important for plants, animals and structures.
Pharmacological Resources Natural materials that are or can be used by organisms to maintain, restore or improve health (natural patterns can be copied by humans for synthetic products).
Cultural Functions Landscape Opportunity The extent and variety of natural features and landscapes.

Ecosystem functions are interactive and synergistic rather than discrete (see Framework Boundaries for more information). Different ecosystem functions contribute to the provision of different ecosystem services in different quantities or magnitudes. Each ecosystem function can contribute to more than one ecosystem service, and it takes more than one ecosystem function to provide any ecosystem service.

Participants in the Expert Panels were asked to score the magnitude each ecosystem function contributes to the provision of different ecosystem services 'relative' to the other ecosystem functions (on a scale of 0 - 5). The scores for each ecosystem function to ecosystem service relationship are provided on the individual webpages supporting each of the functions. But remember, these scores are 'relative', therefore in application they should be viewed relative to other scores and the full matrices are required for this. The full matrices are located in the Quick Index. More information on the scoring system can be obtained under About the Framework. Users of this information should also be familiar with the boundaries and principles identified in Framework Boundaries and Key Principles.

Ecosystems functions also occur at a range of scales, temporal (e.g. minutes, years, decades) and geographic (e.g. patch scale, within a catchment, an airshed, globally). The rate and scale ecosystem functions operate over depends on the components of the ecosystem involved in the interaction (e.g. birds and animals, atmosphere and water), as well as topography and the spatial arrangement of ecosystems in the landscape. For example, the range of animal movement, the fluid nature of water having a downhill flow, the direction of the wind or gaseous movement across the globe. Ecosystems therefore do not function independently and to function efficiently often rely on interactions with other ecosystems. The rate and scale that ecosystem functions operate at must be taken into account when assessing the potential to provide ecosystem services into the future (see 'directional bias' in the ecosystem services webpage). More information on the temporal and geographic scale of ecosystem functions is provided briefly in the webpages supporting the individual functions.