David Tilman


Ecology and Conservation Biology

7th edition

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category goes in this seventh edition to David Tilman for scientifically establishing the value of biodiversity, quantifying, for the first time, how it contributes to make ecosystems more productive, more resilient to invasions, and more stable in the face of perturbations such as drought.


The award is in recognition of Professor David Tilman’s foundational research on the interplay between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. His groundbreaking work combines long-term experimental studies with theoretical advances. Internationally, he is recognized as one of the most influential ecologists of today.

His work has shown how more diverse communities are able to be more persistent and productive. This has helped understanding of the tradeoffs between diversity and stability in terrestrial ecosystems. Professor Tilman’s research quantified for the first time the value of preserving biodiversity by unequivocally showing a relationship between the loss of species and the loss of ecological functions; more diverse communities are more productive, more resilient to invasions by exotic species, and more stable in the face of perturbations such as drought.

In addition, he has shown how a large number of plant species could coexist as the result of a tradeoff between competitive and dispersal abilities. This has provided a solid process-based theory of biodiversity. He has also developed the concept of extinction debt whereby the effects of habitat destruction on species extinctions may occur generations after the disturbance, generating a debt that comes due in the future.

Professor Tilman’s seminal basic research also has very significant implications in the realm of conservation and global land use. He has shown that mixtures of native perennial grasses provide more net energy per acre than corn grain ethanol and can enhance rather than degrade the environment. His work has significantly influenced science-based policy concerning land use and the global carbon balance.